Activism on the rise among college faculty
New organizations are pushing old issues to the forefront of political discussion and controversy
Madeleine Msall chuckled at the prospects. It was easy to see the passion behind the idea, but hard to visualize how it would actually work.
“I laud them for their willingness to go in a new direction and to let go of some of the wonderful benefits of the academy,” she said. “But I don’t know how electable they’ll be. For academics who look at things in shades of gray, in our current political climate, just how many people will get behind that kind of consensus building is hard to guess. But I hope they are successful.”
The Bowdoin College physics professor was referring to the 314 Action movement, an initiative aimed at increasing the number of candidates and elected officials with backgrounds in S.T.E.M. industries. In two years, the organization has attracted attention for its political mobilization efforts nationwide. With more than 80,000 donors and plans for a March webinar to help in educating potential candidates for a career in politics, the organization is making good on its vision of political action to alter directions on issues like climate change and a recent federal ban on immigrant entry to the United States.
“A lot of scientists traditionally feel that science is above politics but we’re seeing that politics is not above getting involved in science,” 314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton said in a recent interview with The Atlantic. “We’re losing, and the only way to stop that is to get more people with scientific backgrounds at the table.”
314 Action is the most visible may be the most visible representation of faculty members working to infuse scientific data into public conversation, but it is just the latest in a long history of academe fighting an uphill battle for attention and response from the general public.
A growing culture of collaborative activism
Shortly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January, most of the references to climate change and global warming established on the White House’s official website we removed from public viewing. That act moved hundreds of professors nationwide to sign an open letter to the president, calling for his administration to continue the work of the preceding leadership in fighting against the effects of climate change, which more than 95% of scientists accept as a legitimate scientific occurrence according to some reports.
For Msall, one of the writers of the letter, the urgency to communicate the seriousness of the problem is only matched by the recognition that elected officials and the general public are typically not swayed by data and parlance that is unfamiliar to them.
“The difficulty for scientists is being careful about the facts with detail and rigor, but giving clear takeaways as well,” she says. “It is not something everyone can do easily. Its very difficult to do in a way that we can believe will hold true for the next 10, 20 years, because information is changing so much and so quickly.”
She says that she, along with colleagues from Bowdoin, have actively sent data and reports to elected officials at state and federal levels of government, with the hopes that even local interventions can help in making big differences. She cites changes to lobster migration patterns in New England water channels, which have created a boom for Maine’s harvesting economy as the shellfish have moved from waters near New York and Connecticut that have become increasingly warmer in recent decades.
“A lot of the conversations we’re having are about what scientists have to offer, not just with the president but with local leaders and people in Maine who will be dealing with the consequences of climate change,” Msall says. “I think what we see happening with lobsters moving north and the difficulty of our winters are issues we’ll grapple with on the local level. Having people know is part of our preparedness and a big part of how we’re going to be resilient.”
Some faculty members say that the response to their activism has created an alternative movement among political circles. In Iowa, legislation was recently introduced to require public colleges and universities to hire faculty members based on political affiliation, in order to balance perspectives offered in classrooms and in research in the public sector.
"I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity," Sen. Mark Chelgren (R) told the Des Moines Register. "They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are."
Lawmakers in North Carolina delayed a vote this week on a similar provision within a bill which would reduce the number of members on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.
Msall says that many college professors are casting their activism lot with liberal lawmakers, as they tend to be more favorable with accepting and advancing data on pressing issues. But she says that bipartisan support for critical issues remains the goal of university professors and researchers, even if that objective is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s political climate.
"We’ve tried to be statesman like, and there’s been a general agreement that scientists are good at facts, but now that’s getting muddled," she said. "We take our educational role as trusted sources very seriously, so how are we going to let people know that there are resources available that both sides can agree upon?"
"I understand that things which win for the other side are not the things that win for me. We’re trying to think about the ways in which we can calmly present things that would get people to say, 'Maybe this isn’t the best way to approach this.'"