Higher ed group says professor fired for Hurricane Katrina findings

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

An academic freedom group  has rallied to the defense of a long-time Louisiana State University professor who alleges he was fired for maintaining that the Army Corps of Engineers was at fault for the devastating flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005.

Ivor von Heerden had worked as an associate professor without tenure and a hurricane expert in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at LSU when he laid out his case against the Corps. In media interviews and in congressional testimony, he argued that the levees constructed around New Orleans were flawed, leading to the massive flooding and suffering the city endured Katrina's wake.

"The administration decided not to retain Professor van Heerden largely in retaliation for his continuing dissent from the prevailing LSU position on the failed levees and the New Orleans flooding, thereby violating his academic freedom," the American Association of University Professors said in its report on the subject.

A year after the disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers accepted responsibility for the levee failures. "This is the first time that the Corps has had to stand up and say, 'We've had a catastrophic failure,' " Corps Chief Lt. Gen. Carl Strock said in 2006. But when von Heerden first began his criticism in 2005, the Corps argued that the force of the storm was so great it broke the levees through no fault of the levees' design.

Internal memos from administrators show that lawmakers and federal agency employees expressed their displeasure with von Heerden's comments and asked LSU to rein him in, the report said.

"LSU will engage in helping with [the] recovery of Louisiana, not in pointing blame," Vice Chancellor for Communications Michael Ruffner wrote to von Heerden in 2005. "The chancellor has begun initiatives toward this goal, and it would not be useful to have the university associated, intentionally or not, with efforts aimed at causation." Von Heerden was part of a group of professors trying to figure out exactly that: what caused the disastrous aftermath of the hurricane.

In 2006 Von Heerden was told he was no longer allowed to teach and that his contract would now be renewed year-to-year. He was fired in 2009 and not told why; shortly after his dismissal, he filed a wrongful termination suit.

"Administrators, anticipating cooperation and support from the Corps in hurricane recovery projects, did not appreciate being linked in the newspapers with these findings," the AAUP said in its review of the case. "They took steps to restrain van Heerden's public activities, to distance LSU from those activities, and, eventually, to deny him further appointment."

LSU Spokesman A.G. Monaco declined to comment on the allegations while the litigation is ongoing.