Nuance, politics, and governance in academia (8 March 2014)

Today’s blog posting will not be about Carleton University’s Senate per se, but rather more general remarks about the role of universities and the politics of university funding. This posting arose from an e-mail correspondence with Neil Buchanan of George Washington University, who has already written about this matter in the “Dorf on Law” blog (here), in which I appear as the un-named biologist. Neil Buchanan discussed how academia has become much less nuanced and more polarized, at least in the eyes of government, the media, and the public at-large. This is extremely pertinent in my own field (evolutionary biology) and that of my current doctoral students (climate change). Lack of nuance plays out in important ways when it comes to the politics of academic governance and government funding of universities.

As anybody who has attended one of Carleton’s Senate meetings will know, the flame-throwers amongst the faculty are almost all in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (I am truly using the term ‘flame-thrower’ as a compliment here). My understanding is that these colleagues were educated in very liberal traditions. By contrast, engineers at Senate are utterly boring and conservative. They only speak when called upon to do so. This is not necessarily a horrible thing; it simply reflects our cultural upbringings. In a previous life, working at John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, I mostly worked with engineers, a huge percentage of whom were fundamentalist christians, indicating that there is politics in academia.

Government funding of universities is political. Right-leaning politicians generally do not like to fund much basic research, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, but also frown upon funding much basic natural science research. Old-timers from the U.S. will recall Senator Jesse Helms’s attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Closer to home, recall the remarkable Death of Evidence rally that our University of Ottawa colleague Scott Findlay helped organize to highlight (lowlight?) conservative government censoring of science. But even government funding is nuanced, as can be seen by both right-leaning and left-leaning politicians generously funding the military-industrial complex, as well as university engineering programs that train these people. With the Harper government, much funding for basic research has also been diverted to industrial partnerships, fueling the corporatization of academia. Don’t you find it perverse that NSERC and SSHRC fall under purview of the Minister of Industry, even though people who traditionally have been awarded NSERC and SSHRC grants often do not have nor want to have anything to do with industry?

Graham Smart sent me a fascinating new paper in the journal BioScience titled “Politicizing science: What is the role of biologists in a hyperpartisan world?” This article not only discussed funding of military applications, but also more recent funding or lack thereof for the environment, presaging my next paragraph. This paper also noted that science seems to be “shifting from being innovative to being regulatory” (Baker 2014: 172). I wonder whether all of academia is shifting from innovative to regulatory. Certainly university governance has become less innovative and more regulatory, e.g. the new impetus for so-called quality assurance and Carleton’s even newer unit standards for tenure.

Neil Buchanan highlighted the changing roles of modern universities. Professors are no longer purveyors of content. In fact, in many of our courses, content is irrelevant (it flummoxes most of my students that I do not test them on content). What matters is teaching students how to think for themselves and how to reach consensus in groups. Decisions can often be difficult, such as Neil Buchanan’s question about whether coal makes more sense than other energy sources, at least with existing technology (note that he raised this issue for the U.S.; the situation may vary with geographical context, e.g. Canada). By contrast, some decisions are much easier to rationally make, such as whether humans cause some global climate change. I say this is an easy decision despite having been an American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow working for the George W. Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, in which I helped advise them on their (largely) non-existent environmental policy, cringing every time I heard Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (thank goodness for his antithesis, Jim Jeffords, who has unfortunately retired from the U.S. Senate). We need to hear all sides, although not necessarily equal time for all, and understand their nuances. But then we also need to train our students to think critically enough to understand which arguments best reflect reality. I am proud to have a colleague at Carleton who most people would characterize as a climate change denier. While I do not agree with him about interpretation of findings, I think it is great that our students get to hear many sides and learn to articulate the arguments about which facets should steer policy. This is far better than the cardboard characterizations that often pervade our disciplines, perspectives that too often lack nuance. Universities also need to remind students, government, and the media that we don’t know everything. That is why we conduct research! Much of science and medicine is still myth and art, which makes historical sense given that modern European science arose from alchemy and the mysticism of Isaac Newton. It is okay to let our students, government, and the media know this. We should be humble.

After closely following nuanced arguments from disparate fields, I believe as fervently as anybody in the reality and significance of evolution and human-induced climate change. I am proud to say that my views have been shaped by not just biology, but also by economics, physics, mathematics, engineering, philosophy of science, science policy (which really has almost nothing to do with science), gender studies, and Indigenous studies, as well as by views of my colleagues in geography, criminology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, etc. For those clamouring for more nuance, I am an ardent evolutionary biologist who also happens to be a rabid anti-adaptationist (contact me or check out the publications on my website for details).

I ended my previous post with the following quote from Taiaiake Alfred (1999: xix), which also seems appropriate here: “In any culture deeply respectful of rationale thought, the only real political power consists of the ability to persuade.” The question that remains is: Are we respectful of rationale thought? I hope so. This will allow us, including our students, to think and listen broadly and then make tough nuanced intelligent decisions. Maybe that will help eliminate polarized political machinations and help us reach consensus. This should be a call to follow the old Chicago adage, namely vote and vote often. Vote your conscience and – much more importantly – respectfully and firmly speak your views at Senate, in your department, and with local, provincial, and federal governments.

Many thanks for advanced feedback from Peter Killeen, Graham Smart, Chris Burn, Jack Gorelick, and Neil Buchanan, none of whom may agree with me.

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