Katrina levee critic handed demotion

BATON ROUGE, La. | An outspoken coastal scientist who led the state’s independent Team Louisiana investigation into Hurricane Katrina levee failures has been told by LSU that he will be terminated as a research professor in May 2010.

Ivor van Heerden, who is not a tenured professor, also has been stripped of his title as deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center. Also, engineering professor Marc Levitan has stepped down as the center’s director. University officials say they will reshape the center’s research direction in the wake of the moves.

Mr. van Heerden said he was fired because LSU officials sought to silence him. He said his firing also may be related to a pending trial of the Army Corps of Engineers about flooding caused by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. Mr. van Heerden may testify at the trial.

The researcher has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Corps of Engineers, and he has appeared on television documentaries, in news stories and on the speaking circuit. He also wrote a book about Katrina and about flaws with the levee system in New Orleans.

He will remain director of the LSU Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes until his LSU contract ends next year. He said he makes just over $100,000 a year.

LSU officials refused to discuss the van Heerden decision, citing the school’s policy of not commenting about personnel matters. An LSU spokeswoman did not immediately return a telephone call Friday from the Associated Press.

But in the past, LSU officials have said they did not want Mr. van Heerden speaking out on subjects in which he was not an expert. In particular, former LSU Vice Chancellor for Communications Michael Ruffner wrote in a June 2006 letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper that Mr. van Heerden was asked not “to comment on levees and construction matters because he is trained in geology and botany and not civil engineering.”

Mr. van Heerden disputed that characterization of his expertise.

“Anyone who has looked at my resume will see I have the expertise,” he said.

Mr. van Heerden said Friday he would appeal the college’s decision. He said he would like to avoid legal action, although he was considering it. “Before going that route, I hope LSU will recognize the signal they’ve sent to the world is that academic freedom does not exist at LSU.

“The folks who are going to lose in this is LSU, not me,” Mr. van Heerden said. “I will find a job rather easily. There have already been some offers.”

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