On May 27, 2022, the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany) placed public health professor David Carpenter on alternate assignment, instructed him to refrain from accessing or working on campus, and offered him a resignation letter, in connection with an investigation prompted by a law firm’s freedom of information law (FOIL) request over his role as an expert witness in past and ongoing litigation.
Carpenter, who founded SUNY Albany’s School of Public Health and is the director of the university’s Institute for Health and the Environment, has routinely served as an expert witness in legal cases, many of which involve the Bayer-owned agrochemical company Monsanto. Carpenter has been compensated over the years for his testimony. With the consent of and in coordination with university administrators, Carpenter has reportedly directed nearly all compensation from expert testimony to graduate students, staff, and research programs at SUNY Albany.
In February 2022, Shook Hardy & Bacon, a law firm defending Monsanto in a toxic pollution lawsuit, filed a FOIL request with SUNY Albany, to obtain information about Carpenter, who at the time was serving as an expert witness in several cases against Monsanto, according to the Albany Times Union. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, the law firm claimed that it was “simply seeking information related to Dr. Carpenter’s research activities and their funding so that any potential conflicts are transparent and properly disclosed to juries, as well as to medical and scientific journals in which he has published.”
In response to the FOIL request, SUNY Albany officials initiated an investigation into Carpenter, put him on an alternate assignment, and barred him from campus. According to the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), it was not until a meeting with university officials on February 6, 2023—over eight months after the investigation began and just one day after news of the case broke publicly—that Carpenter learned about the “specific subject matter of the investigation.” PEER further noted that, prior to February 6, Carpenter “was never interviewed in connection with the investigation, and never asked to speak to any allegations that may have been made against him.” Carpenter shared with Inside Higher Ed documents he was later given by the university and that suggest the focus of their investigation. One of the documents noted that SUNY Albany’s “Office of Human Resources initiated an investigation focused on the business and financial transactions of the [Institute for Health and the Environment].” The document further noted that Carpenter must “immediately refrain from using [his] university position or university resources in connection with [his] outside engagement and activities for the personal gain of [himself] or others” and “immediately refrain from utilizing university students or staff in furtherance of [his] outside activity/engagements on university or Research Foundation time.”
According to Inside Higher Ed, just days after news first broke about SUNY Albany’s investigation into Carpenter, Monsanto’s legal team moved to conduct further discovery regarding Carpenter, arguing that “Defendants learned via [the Albany Times Union], for the first time, that Dr. Carpenter is the subject of an ‘ongoing disciplinary investigation,’ that he has been placed on ‘alternate assignment’ from the university and that he has been ‘placed on restricted duties’ as the university investigates ‘his extensive work testifying as an expert witness in toxic pollution cases.’ […] The particulars of the university’s disciplinary investigation of Dr. Carpenter […] is critically material to the jury’s determination of Dr. Carpenter’s credibility and bias.
Carpenter and his supporters claim that the FOIL requests were intended to silence and discredit him as an expert witness for this and likely future cases.
On February 21, 2023—after considerable media coverage and expressions of support for Carpenter by members of the academic community—SUNY Albany announced that it had concluded its investigation into Carpenter, that he was no longer on alternate assignment, and that he was permitted to work on campus. SUNY Albany officials did not comment further on the matter.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about legal actions intended to chill or discredit a scholar’s academic expression and a higher education institution summarily taking disciplinary action against a scholar for the same. Academic freedom includes the freedom to speak publicly, outside as well as inside the higher education space, within the scholar’s fields of expertise. Actions by private, state, or university actors intended to restrict or deter such activity may violate academic freedom and freedom of expression.