University suspends its 'gadfly' ecologists

Ros Wynne-Jones on the fall of a troublesome department
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The Independent Online
IT MAY have been when a Native American chief named Stone Eagle was brought across the Atlantic to save the Scottish island of Harris that Edinburgh University decided its most radical department had to go.

It may have been when the Centre for Human Ecology, suspended last week after 20 years of hard-line environmentalism, joined the M77 road protest, or when it published a paper recommending Scottish independence. Or it may have been when a senior academic from the centre began assisting the people of a second Scottish island, Eigg, to buy their homeland from the ruling laird.

Whatever the reason, it seems that Edinburgh University, after four previous attempts to close the centre, might finally have succeeded in ridding itself of its troublesome environmentalists.

On Wednesday, Sir Stewart Sutherland, the university principal, announced he had suspended the centre's courses for at least the next academic year and would not be renewing the contracts of its two part-time staff, as "we can no longer guarantee quality assurances can be met".

The centre, a close academic community of about 20, believes the move is political, which the university strongly denies.

"We are an embarrassment to the university because of the nature of our work," says Alastair McIntosh, the man responsible for Stone Eagle's appearance as a key witness at a public inquiry into the proposed "superquarry" on the Isle of Harris. "The university has a traditional mindset and they don't like the work we do here."

He alleges he has been "threatened" by senior Edinburgh academics about continuing work at the CHE, with the implication that the department would be axed if it refused to toe a more moderate line.

"Scotland is a close-knit place," he says. "Eighty percent of it is owned by 900 families and that has a controlling influence." He also claims he is being "warned off" teaching more radical subjects such as eco-feminism.

In addition to a joint publication with Stone Eagle, Mr McIntosh has published a further 80 papers, books and articles, none of which is designed to get him invited into the establishment. One recent paper, sent to the Secretary of State for the Environment, was a direct attack on the Government's White Paper on science which he believes was "ethically corrupt". There is fear within the centre that the published work of Mr McIntosh and his prolific PhD and MSc students has caused their axeing.

Sir Stewart dismisses this as "paranoia". "There is absolutely no basis for this view," he says. "Nothing CHE has ever done has embarrassed me. It was a practical but regrettable decision."

Last summer, Sir Stewart made a similar announcement while the centre's entire staff and students were on a field trip to the Outer Hebrides. Following an outcry from international academics, internal student protest and vocal support from environmentalists including David Bellamy, Sara Parkin and Jonathon Porritt, a compromise was reached and the centre was granted a reprieve.

The compromise came in the form of Tim Birley, a former civil servant in the Scottish Office, brought in to bridge what insiders describe as a widening gulf between the ideologies of the centre and the traditionalist sentiments of Edinburgh. He resigned a fortnight ago, due to a "lack of support from staff and students".

The CHE has threatened before to set up an alternative university and now says it has been offered five different sites in Scotland.

"The thing is, we don't want to go," says Daniel Morgan, a PhD student. "Why should we be marginalised when the university would be a more powerful location?"

The last time the centre was threatened with closure, David Bellamy said it was like a gadfly. "Gadflies," he said, "sometimes cause stampedes. And by God, we need something of a stampede towards ecological change if we are to conserve for our children what my generation inherited."

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