Was climate science the real reason the strategic dynamos on the UVA board wanted president Teresa Sullivan gone? The fund manager behind the coup is “very, very angry” that I would even ask…
When I first heard news of the coup attempt at the University of Virginia, I wondered if it had anything to do with climate change. As fossil fuel interests rake in an annual $5 trillion emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere so a thriving industry has also emerged over the past twenty years emitting misinformation and mendacity into the political discourse, the preponderance of which has for the past decade been preoccupied waging information warfare on the former UVA climatologist Michael Mann.
The campaign to crucify Mann for the sins of a centuries-old body of science has at times grown so absurd that a former congressman attending a hearing on climate science drily asked a National Academy of Sciences official whether his testimony on the matter might have differed in the hypothetical It’s A Wonderful Life scenario that “Mr. and Mrs. Mann had never met”; and just last week the Competitive Enterprise Institute dubbed him the “Jerry Sandusky of climate change.” Still, there are a few obvious reasons Dr. Mann has been singled out. One, his research is epistemically more historical than theoretical; he led the first trio of scientists to make a serious attempt to calculate average global temperatures for every year of the past millennium and plot them on a graph, an endeavor that shortly became known as the “hockey stick graph” for the indisputable upward surge in the averages starting in the early twentieth century. Also indisputable: the denialists could not have asked for an easier meme than “Mann-made global warming.” And third, northern Virginia is the national headquarters of corporate speech, and a number of its taxpayers were especially bitter about having paid the hockey stick guy’s salary all those years.
Two years ago Ken Cuccinelli, the freshly elected attorney general of Virginia, opened a new front on the War on Mann, serving the UVA Board of Visitors with a subpoena-like demand requiring them to produce anything and everything in the institution’s possession the scientist had touched—all emails to and from, research conducted, data and source code kept by, administrative correspondence concerning, et cetera ad nauseam—from “the period between January 1, 1999 to the present date.” Although Mann had not worked at UVA since 2006, the demand provoked widespread indignation among students, faculty members and the requisite national advocacy groups, moving the Board to amend its initial promise to comply and retain a lawyer.
The cost of the university’s ultimate legal victory against Cuccinelli this March, $576,000, was the subject of no small amount of controversy. The fee had been financed by private donors, whose identities two climate denial think tanks and a state legislator in turn demanded (unsuccessfully) the university disclose, but when the case was finally thrown out some Democratic state senators had attempted (also unsuccessfully) to add a line item to the budget to reimburse the university, a development that clearly aroused some anxiety in president Teresa Sullivan, who wrote an email that evening to Helen Dragas and Mark Kington, the board’s rector and vice rector, respectively, denying any knowledge or involvement in the proposal:
But not a month later, hostilities were flaring again, when the UVA environmental sciences department voted to hire Michael Mann back to UVA, a development that quickly leaked to “Drudge of Denial” Marc Morano and began making the rounds on the right wing Virginia state politics blogs, with anti-commuter rail crusader D.J. McGuire dubbing the news “beyond belief” and “a slap in the face to the voters and taxpayers of the Commonwealth” and the anonymous Blue Ridge Mountain-based blogger From on High scoffing that he himself wouldn’t hire Mann “to trim my lawn, much less represent my once-prestigious university to the scientific world” and adding:
Some wonder why Mann isn’t in prison for having fostered and perpetrated[sic] the most egregious scientific fraud in the history of the planet…Let’s hope this is a vicious – and false – rumor. The University of Virginia has too good a reputation to be going down this road (though this character did, not long ago, stain its halls with his presence). Might UVa make the same mistake twice? Might the university rehire the one man most responsible for the scandal that is global warming theory? Stranger things have ha … Well, no they haven’t. The disgraced Michael Mann being invited back to UVA would truly be a bizarre act on someone’s part. Stay tuned. This may get weird.
It never did. Within days, Mann was told that he hadn’t gotten the job, that it had been “bogged down” by Dean Meredith Woo. But a source in Charlottesville with extensive town and gown ties told me separately that he’d heard differently: not only had Woo been a “big supporter of the appointment”—this seems dubious but she did not respond to my emails either way—but more importantly, Teresa Sullivan had thrown her own support behind the appointment “with an almost gleeful level of irreverence.” (Why reverence might be owed to the sort of cabal of know-nothings who persist in promulgating the sort of fantastically absurd, repeatedly disproven and improbably malicious attacks of the sort to which Mann has been subjected for all his efforts is the kind of rhetorical question one doesn’t bother asking in Virginia, but for the record: virtually no claim the climate skeptic blogosphere has ever made about Mann, the hockey stick or climate science in general has any substantive validity whatsoever.)
But Mann still didn’t get the job, and not six weeks after that Teresa Sullivan was sacked at the hands of the very vice rector who had put up the funds for Mann’s would-be professorship, the Alexandria money manager Mark Kington. In the publicity frenzy that followed, however, only the professional climate science denialist Anthony Watts drew any connection between the two events, expressing mild dismay that the fellow had executed the plan so clumsily:
Maybe this is idle speculation, but why did they have to fire her so quickly and on a Sunday morning? And, just 15 months after her inauguration? Couldn’t it have waited until their next meeting? Inquiring minds want to know!!!
After conducting some basic research to divine the nature of the political and financial forces at work on the UVA board, I emailed Mark Kington, who called back within minutes to inform me that the two things had “no connection at all” and that it would be a grave violation of “journalistic ethics” to imply such a thing, and also that he was “really really angry with” me and “resent[ed”that I would go “dragging my name into something that’s wrong.” And that he would “consider it libel” against his “interest in the environment” if I were to write anything suggesting otherwise. “You might want to stir the pot but it’s not true,” he said. “I know the whole situation and what you’re writing is not true. I tried to do what’s right and I’d hate to see that twisted in a way that was wrong.” I asked him what then had been the actual reason he and Dragas had colluded with donors (including apparently the hedge fund manager who donated the matching funds to endow the Kington chair) to oust Sullivan and he replied, “It’s all out in the public! It was a reasonable difference of opinion! You’ve got to be led by the star of what is right for the institution!” And then he mentioned “libel” again and accused me of diminishing his deep “commitment to climate change.”
And just in case I didn’t get the message, I received an email from him a couple minutes after we concluded our conversation.
Oh good grief I’m broker than Jefferson County, mister.
Saga continues at Yes, Virginia Part 2: Getting Warmer…