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State education leaders are stepping into the heated debate over hydraulic fracturing and the wrangling over the University at Buffalo's new shale institute.
Trustees with the State University of New York on Wednesday directed UB to provide the SUNY governing board more details about the founding, funding and staffing of its controversial Shale Resources and Society Institute.
Trustees asked UB to report back in an "expeditious manner."
"We'll follow what the board has asked us to do," UB Provost Charles F. Zukoski said Wednesday. "I would imagine they would like it within a week or two, and we're very happy to write them that report."
SUNY's involvement is welcome news to campus critics, who have been asking UB for weeks to make public all the documents pertaining to the institute.
"We've been put off with nonsensical arguments and really quite insulting defenses of academic freedom," said UB English professor Jim Holstun, chairman of the UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research.
"Finally," Holstun said. "I don't think it's going to be possible to ignore this."
The institute's April unveiling was followed up a month later with a controversial report that the form of natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is safer, thanks to state oversight and better industry practices.
Critics - who pointed out that the authors have close ties to the oil and natural gas industry - poked holes in the report and immediately raised concerns that the institute is more of a public relations campaign for the industry than it is scholarly research.
While UB has said the shale institute was started with $40,000 of its own money to lend some academic understanding to a contentious issue, critics said the controversy surrounding the institute has damaged the university's credibility.
Last month, 83 UB faculty members signed an open letter to university administrators calling for more transparency, in particular, on whether money from the oil and gas industry funds the shale institute.
Students and members of New Yorkers Against Fracking sidestepped the university Wednesday and took their concerns to the top, staging a protest and news conference in New York City, outside a meeting of the SUNY board of trustees.
A short time later, SUNY Trustee Joseph Belluck - a graduate of UB's Law School - spoke with the activists and told them the board had heard their concerns, said Rebecca Weber, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group and a member of the anti-fracking coalition.
"We were very pleasantly surprised, and it really meant a lot for the coalition and the students present to have an on-the-spot response like that," Weber said. "It was an incredible experience."
"My sense is that the resolution passed by the board represents the chief concern we all have about the integrity of all science," Zukoski said. "We ought to be proud the [SUNY] board holds UB to such high standards and want to be sure we do maintain these high standards."

email: jrey@buffnews.com