Usually, when I write about Bill Marler, I’m talking about his work as the nation’s go-to lawyer when it comes to  food safety. E. coli in beef? Salmonella in peanut butter? He’s there. But if you’ve heard his name in the last few days, it’s for cleverly — at some personal cost — cutting through rhetoric and restoring Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, to Washington State University’s “common reading” curriculum for incoming freshmen. 

The plug had initially been pulled on the program, in a controversy the Spokesman-Review summarized this way:

A book chosen by a Washington State University committee as appropriate food for thought for all incoming freshmen will not be distributed at summer orientation after a member of the board of regents raised concerns about the work’s focus on problems associated with agribusiness.

WSU’s president said the decision to halt the “common reading” program was related to the university’s financial crisis.”

The college had estimated the book program, which included bringing the author to speak on campus, could cost $40,000+, though that figure has been considerably disputed. (Pollan told The New York Times he could do a videoconference instead.)

Marler, a “Cougar through and through” and past president of the WSU Board of Regents, wrote a few days ago that he had an idea for how to show whether the decision was political or financial:

To show that it was not political, I will pay to get Mr. Pollan to Pullman and find a place for him to speak – I’ll even introduce him.  My hope is that it was not political, because the following quote is what Washington State University – in being a “Coug” – is all about:

“It strikes me that the real value of the university is basically the way it serves the public, researches without fear and favor and being a place where issues can be aired, which are by nature controversial,” said Richard Law, the outgoing director of general education at WSU and a founding member of the common reading committee.

I have my checkbook ready.”

End of story? The university accepted Marler’s offer. The freshmen will read the book, and Pollan is coming. The eminently practical Marion Nestle wrote today that she hoped the program would cost Marler less than $40,000. Marler replied that it wasn’t about the money, it was about some issues being too important to walk away from. He’ll donate anything left over to the next speaker.

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