LNW_Ivor.via.PGR• Keep Ivor van Heerden • Bring back Marc Levitan • Restore LSU Hurricane Center

The following letter has been faxed to LSU Chancellor Mike Martin, with copies to engineering dean David Constant, vice chancellors Chuck Wilson, Brooks Keel, and Robert Twilley; Governor Bobby Jindal, senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter; Garret Graves, Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities; and R. King Milling, Chairman, America’s Wetland Foundation.

April 27, 2009

Chancellor Mike Martin
Office of the Chancellor
156 Thomas Boyd Hall
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803

Dear Chancellor Martin:

As an alumnus of LSU and as the founder of LeveesNotWar.org, I am writing to protest the “slow-motion firing” of Ivor van Heerden and the gutting of the LSU Hurricane Center and its Public Health Center. Please, Chancellor Martin, reverse these reckless acts of political retribution. (I understand you were not aware of the firing until afterward, but as chancellor you have the authority to step in and right the wrong.) Please bring back Marc Levitan, renew Dr. van Heerden’s contract, restore his teaching and other former responsibilities, and give Levitan and van Heerden the leeway to revive the Hurricane Center—including the irreplaceable Public Health Center—without further delay. Hurricanes aren’t going away.

As an activist group that promotes robust rebuilding of Louisiana’s flood protection systems, Levees Not War has benefited greatly from Dr. van Heerden’s guidance in conversations and interviews. He has been generous with his time—a teacher in the true sense of the word. We have come to rely on his honesty and care for his beloved state of Louisiana and its people, a devotion we share. We have also benefited from reading and rereading his book The Storm. Through his knowledge of geology and engineering and coastal restoration and his decades of dedication to Louisiana by serving on countless committees such as Team Louisiana he is an essential state resource, a treasury of knowledge and courage whom the state should be empowering, not punishing. In his science-based critiques of faulty Army Corps of Engineers designs (the Corps is not his only target) he is doing his duty for public safety. And how is he rewarded?

We understand a school must make some allowances for political relationships and federal funding considerations, and we know a gadfly’s criticisms can be annoying. Also, Levees Not War is essentially friendly to the Corps—we want them to be well funded and to “be all they can be” (tho’ not all-powerful). But this firing is clearly a fulfillment of former chancellor Sean O’Keefe’s threat to fire van Heerden if he served as a witness in the MR-GO lawsuit. LSU had already stripped away his teaching duties, reduced his Hurricane Center responsibilities, limited his contact with the media, and publicly belittled his expertise as a critic of the Corps.

By this obviously political maneuver, LSU makes itself and the state look very “banana republic” in the eyes of the world, reversing hard-won gains in prestige and damaging the university’s fund-raising prospects. (We would have expected the administration would at least respect this aspect of the affair.) If LSU drives out an internationally respected scientist and downgrades the Hurricane Center purely for political reasons, then it is not serious about being a top-tier university. Do you and your vice chancellors not realize what an alarming signal this sends to all faculty and to any prospective applicants? It sounds an alarm, too, for Louisianans who expect their state’s institutions to protect the public—and defend professors who call attention to risks to public safety.

The LSU Hurricane Center, too, has been an immense asset for public safety, a local complement to the National Hurricane Center. For LSU to downgrade the Center from a $1 million budget at the time of Katrina to zero today shows a shocking disregard of public safety and contempt for academic integrity.

Chancellor Martin, the university and the governor too should reward Ivor van Heerden with honors and additional funding for the LSU Hurricane Center he co-founded, rather than punish him and the Center with a relentless campaign of “death by a thousand cuts.” You know, for their investigation of the levee failures in Hurricane Katrina, the University of California rewarded engineering professors Bob Bea and Ray Seed with honors and a $20 million research center. The contrast in Louisiana—the state most directly affected by Katrina—is heartbreaking and truly makes us fear for the future. “Shoot the messenger” is not a prescription for survival or for academic excellence.

Mr. Martin, please put public safety before politics: Bring back Dr. Levitan, retain Dr. van Heerden, and restore and expand the Hurricane Center to meet the perils facing Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Lord knows we need all the help we can get.

Yours sincerely,

Mark LaFlaur
Founder, LeveesNotWar.org

cc: David Constant, Dean of the College of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Charles A. Wilson, Executive Vice Chancellor and Vice Provost
Brooks Keel, Vice Chancellor, Research and Economic Development
Robert R. Twilley, Associate Vice Chancellor, Research and Economic Development

Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana
Mary L. Landrieu, Senator of Louisiana
David Vitter, Senator of Louisiana
Garret Graves, Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities
R. King Milling, Chairman, America’s Wetland Foundation