Speaking out carried a high price for Ivor van Heerden. And, as it turns out, fighting him unsuccessfully carried a high price for LSU.
Despite his doctorate in marine science and his years of experience in disaster research, the fired deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center has been unable to find steady work since May 2010, save for a yearlong stint working for a private firm involved in the oil spill cleanup and the occasional consulting or expert trial witness gig.
For a year now, he and his wife have been living in a trailer on a half-acre in rural Livingston Parish, hoping to sell their adjacent home to cover mounting living expenses. His two daughters fled the state in disgust over the way van Heerden was treated: One is attending college in California; the other lives in Alabama.
Circumstances changed somewhat in February, when the Louisiana Office of Risk Management cut van Heerden a check for $435,000. The act averted a potentially embarrassing federal trial exploring whether LSU destroyed the researcher’s career for fear his highly public allegations that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to blame for the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina would hurt the university’s chances of securing grant money. Van Heerden sued the LSU Board of Supervisors and three former administrators in February 2010 after being told his contract would not be renewed.
These days, van Heerden and his wife are contemplating life anew, with plans to move to Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, expand their shared passion for sailing aboard the boat they’ve restored, and “have some peace and quiet.” Van Heerden’s days as a university professor are over. He is instead planning a career as a writer and documentary producer to educate the public on environmental issues.
“For so long, my wife and I felt like our lives were on hold,” he says. “We really couldn’t decide what we were going to do with our future, given the uncertainty of the trial and so on. It was a huge relief to have it settled in such a way that it allowed us to now make plans and move on with our lives.”
Van Heerden earned his doctoral degree from LSU in 1983, and returned to work for the university as an associate professor of research nearly two decades later. He served as deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center from July 1999 until April 2009, when he was informed his contract would not be renewed. All told, LSU’s actions cost it nearly $1 million in attorney’s fees and settlement costs.
His conclusion that the Corps of Engineers bore responsibility for the post-Katrina flooding, during which 2,000 people died and thousands more lost their homes, elicited years of consternation among top university administrators and government officials, as detailed in hundreds of pages of documents filed in van Heerden’s court case.
According to court records, then-Vice Chancellor Michael Ruffner initially told van Heerden to stop responding to the media. Later, university administrators took away his teaching duties and restricted his access to the supercomputer for research. Ultimately, David Constant, then-interim dean of the College of Engineering, fired him. Constant was one LSU administrator named as a defendant in van Heerden’s lawsuit, along with former Vice Chancellor Brooks Keel, former Associate Vice Chancellor Robert Twilley, and former Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Chairman George Voyiadjis.
LSU has taken plenty of highly public heat for its actions. Its senate’s Faculty Grievance Committee concluded in December 2009 that Constant had violated several policies and “significantly compromised the evaluation process” by reviewing the associate professor after having already made the decision not to renew his contract. In 2010, van Heerden’s plight made the big screen in Harry Shearer’s documentary, The Big Uneasy. And the following year, the American Association of University Professors sanctioned LSU for violations of academic freedom, in part over van Heerden’s firing.
Earlier attempts at a settlement between van Heerden and LSU failed. So why the change of heart?
In the weeks leading up to trial, scheduled for Feb. 19, Judge James Brady denied a request from LSU attorneys to bar van Heerden from presenting hundreds of pages of emails and other documents related to his firing. Three days after that ruling, a settlement had been reached and the case dismissed.
In a written statement, LSU System President and Interim Chancellor William Jenkins would say only that while LSU believed it was on solid legal ground, there was “uncertainty as to how a jury would interpret the evidence, impact of court rulings and … uncertainty about the ultimate jury verdict, as well as cost of proceeding with litigation.” Further debate of the issue, he added, “is no longer relevant, warranted or appropriate.”
But van Heerden says he thinks university and state officials concluded they couldn’t risk continued negative publicity—for the very same reason they wanted him to stop speaking out against the Corps of Engineers: money.
“I think from the governor’s office down, people realized that a trial like this would put the national media back on Louisiana in a very negative way,” he says. “And this is at a time when, with the Restore Act, we could potentially get some of the billions of dollars that we need to restore our coast. So there was a definite probability that a very public trial was going to hurt the coastal restoration program.”
Van Heerden says he knew just days after speaking out about the levees that he would probably lose his job, and he shared that sentiment with his wife. Even so, it didn’t soften the blow when it came. What kept him going was support from the community.
“I was quite shocked they would go to this level or sink to this level of just firing me and saying, ‘We don’t have to tell you why,’” he says. “But the bigger thing for me was it separated me from all my work, all my research, and the years and years of accumulation of science. They took that away. That was the hardest part of it.”
Though van Heerden’s firing took place nearly four years ago, it continues to elicit strong feelings among some LSU faculty. In a column published mid-March in LSU’s student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, physics and astronomy professor A. Ravi P. Rau argues both van Heerden’s firing and the recent closed search by the Board of Supervisors for a new chancellor are indicative of a larger problem of “administrative arrogance” and “abuse of university values.”
“Dr. van Heerden did not give up, saying that ‘the fight was all along for academic freedom,’” Rau wrote. “It behooves the rest of us to show some of that courage and integrity in standing up for our basic values: that this is an institution of higher learning dedicated to the pursuit of truth.”
As for van Heerden himself, he hasn’t a single regret.
Although the Corps of Engineers has never conceded any fault for the levee breach, he says he believes the agency is now rethinking its practices and that its new levee systems are “pretty robust.” However, he is still not convinced that New Orleans has adequate protection for a slow-moving Category 3 or Category 4 storm, much less a Category 5.
“I think the corps is always looking over their shoulders because they know if they screw up again, it will really be bad for them,” he says.
He says he is hopeful, too, that given the AAUP sanction, the university might one day strive to attract administrators “who more strongly endorse the principles of academic freedom.”
“The LSU administration is its own entity and really doesn’t answer to the academic institution itself, doesn’t answer to the faculty. There’s no review process,” he says. “It doesn’t operate the way a normal university upper administration would operate.”
Van Heerden says he remains grateful for the continued support of his work from all over the world. He says even on a visit last year to Plockton, a fishing village on the shores of Loch Carron in the Highlands of Scotland, with a population of just 378 people, someone approached him and said, “Oh, you’re the hurricane guy. Thank you.”
“I’ve learned that for me personally, there’s a great satisfaction in standing by my principles, even if it costs me my job,” he says. “When I shave in the morning, I can look myself in the eye and be quite proud of whom I’m looking at.”