An ongoing theme of this blog involves the price citizens can pay when they reveal wrongdoing by those in positions of power.
The story of U.S. Justice Department whistleblower Tamarah Grimes is one such story. My own experience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is another. In both of those cases, individuals lost their jobs for revealing misconduct by members of the justice system.
So imagine our surprise upon learning that Toyota had tried to punish the University of Southern Illinois (SIU) at Carbondale for the role one of its professors had played in determining the cause of acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles--and the university didn't cave in.
Can you believe that an institution actually stood up for an employee who was trying to shine light on an important public issue?
David W. Gilbert, an associate professor of automotive technology at SIU, played a pivotal role in determining that electronics were the likely cause of sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles.
Did Toyota appreciate Gilbert's insights? Not exactly. A recent report indicates that one Toyota employee suggested Gilbert should not be employed at SIU, which has long been the recipient of company donations. Reports Jim Suhr, of the Associated Press:
Electronic messages obtained by The Associated Press show the automaker grew increasingly frustrated with Gilbert's work and made its displeasure clear to his bosses at the 20,000-student school.
"It did kind of catch us off-guard," university spokesman Rod Sievers said.
So did the fallout. Two Toyota employees quickly resigned from an advisory board of the school's auto-technology program, and the company withdrew offers to fund two spring-break internships.
Gilbert and others at SIU felt the pressure from Toyota:
"I didn't really set out to take on Toyota. I set out to tell the truth, and I felt very strongly about that," said Gilbert, who was among the first to suggest that electronics, not sticky gas pedals or badly designed floor mats, caused the acceleration that required the Japanese automaker to recall millions of vehicles.
Pressure from the automaker came in several forms. Reports AP:
On March 8, Mark Thompson--identifying himself as an SIU alum and, without elaboration, a Toyota Motor Sales employee--voiced in an e-mail to the university's then-chancellor, Sam Goldman, his "great concern and disappointment" about Gilbert. Thompson said he was "deeply disturbed" by what he called Gilbert's false accusations about the automaker.
Thompson reminded Goldman that he and Toyota regularly contributed to the university--including a $100,000 check to the auto-tech program in late 2008--and "due to the outstanding reputation your automotive technology program has, we donate much more than money," including cars.
"I ask you why your organization allows such activities to be performed by one of your professors and most importantly allowed to be reported to the media in a false manner," Thompson wrote. "I believe he should not be an employee of our fine university."
As an associate professor, Gilbert probably has tenure--and that might be what saved his job. But as we have learned in the case of UAB business professor Glenn Feldman, tenure will not always protect academicians from being the target of administrative torment.
So we suspect SIU deserves credit for showing at least some spine in the face of pressure from a powerful corporation:
Gilbert insists he never felt his job was threatened, though "there were some moments where I kind of felt I was standing alone."
Still, he said, if his work "can somehow make a car safer in the very narrow scope of electronic throttle controls ... then to me it's worth it. Because that could be someone's life that I could be saving."
Here is an interview where Gilbert discusses his research on the Toyota problem: