Howard University is investigating an alleged incident in which a white professor asked his class to engage in a mock slave auction. News of the exercise was first reported by the Caged Bird blog, which did not name the professor or his department. The instructor reportedly was teaching Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative earlier this month and asked one of two black men in the class to stand up and be examined because he looked “healthy,” according to the blog.
“He asked me to show my butt to the class so that he could get a better sense of my worth and had the audacity to say that it was uncomfortable for him, too, because he’s a white man,” the unnamed student reportedly told Caged Bird. “He started propping my body up as if we were on a slave auction block.” The student said the professor told him he could stop participating when he felt uncomfortable but that he stood up “because I didn’t expect him to do or say the things he said and did. I didn’t sit down sooner because I was so shocked.”
Other students allegedly asked the professor to stop, and the entire class objected to the buttocks remark, according to Caged Bird. The blog did not name the professor because it does not want him to be fired, but does want him to stop teaching that particular lesson, according to an editor’s note.
A spokesperson for Howard said the university is aware of the report and is currently investigating.
Earlier this month, Middlebury College was beset by what could fairly be termed the Academic Perfect Storm. Several hundred students on the Vermont campus shouted down Charles Murray, an author of the controversial The Bell Curve, apparently outraged by the visiting scholar’s claims that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to whites because of their genetic makeup. Murray’s talk was sponsored by a conservative student group affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and was to be moderated by Middlebury professor Allison Stanger. Not only did the lecture never materialize because of shouting, shoving and other intrusions, but Stanger also was injured in the process.
Much has already been written, tweeted and posted about this event. The college has launched several levels of inquiry, while apologizing to the community, alumni and others. The administration has vowed “accountability” for students and others who engage in violence and thus thwarted the event.
Among the major players in this turbulent drama, Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, merits special deference. A New York Times editorial lauded her firm and visible commitment to free expression: “She did this admirably in defending Mr. Murray’s invitation and delivering a public apology to him that Middlebury’s thoughtless agitators should have delivered themselves.” Further background enhanced this encomium. Despite growing easiness about the imminent Murray lecture, Patton consistently reaffirmed her commitment to host the event. And just days before the gathering, she forcefully reminded Middlebury students of the college’s historic commitment to free expression, even for hateful views and words.
She also agreed to chair the event in person and courageously remained on stage throughout the turmoil. Beyond offering cordial hospitality, Patton had recently issued a two-page set of policies governing potentially contentious events, offering a model scenario that contains a firm warning that “disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges.” One of the student organizers praised Patton’s grace and courage as “the one positive thing of the night.”
Otherwise, however, the evening seems to have been a disaster. Although only students were officially invited to attend, many observers noted the catalytic presence of a dozen or so nonstudents wearing black clothing and face masks that mirrored those of the disruptive contingent at a protest at the University of California, Berkeley, several weeks earlier. Given the predictably contentious character of Murray’s widely published writings, tighter security would surely have been appropriate. A plan to extricate the speaker in the event of turmoil was invoked at the 11th hour but foundered immediately when protesters invaded the seemingly secure site; more advance planning and escape routes would have seemed an obvious imperative. In that and several other dimensions, Middlebury’s logistical preparations seemed woefully inadequate.
A few colleges and universities have reluctantly concluded that a scheduled event posed so grave a threat that cancellation offered the only tenable alternative, with hopes that rescheduling would help. Thus, for example, when former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill initially posted his essay about “little Eichmanns” while planning several speeches, several colleges felt safety and survival demanded what would otherwise have seemed a cowardly act. On a quite different occasion, the then chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was privy to carefully sorted, screened and verified electronic warnings of potential chaos attending a speech by (surprisingly) Bill Ayres, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who had once been a leader of the Weather Underground, a radical left-wing organization. While cancellation is hardly a welcome choice, it is option that should not always be categorically rejected.
A vivid personal experience suggests another approach. In the spring of 1983, protestors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I served as president of the system, shouted down in its opening minutes a long-scheduled speech by former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who by then had traveled a far different political pathway. Then Chancellor Irving Shain and I agreed that if Cleaver was willing to return to Madison in the near future, we would ensure adequate security during his appearance, even if that required a secure sound booth. The cost of such an arrangement, we realized, would not be trivial.
We were delighted when Cleaver agreed to make a return visit under those different conditions. We specifically affirmed for the media that, “in keeping with the University of Wisconsin’s longstanding commitment to free speech, if Cleaver wanted to come back to finish his speech, he could do so.” Regrettably, the turnout for the rescheduled speech was sparse for various reasons, including the academic calendar. But we concluded that our investment was well worth making, despite the cost, in the interest of free expression.
Campuses will continue to invite controversial speakers and face turmoil over it. What other advice is worth considering in order to keep such turmoil to a minimum? First, careful advance planning with regard to sponsorship and other arrangements seems vital. It may well be worth requiring the sponsors -- whether students, faculty or, ideally, both -- to make firm commitments in writing about the specific steps they propose to take to maximize the success of the event, essentially in lieu of a bond or insurance, though without a financial component.
Second, the Middlebury experience seems to warrant far greater security planning than was evident at the rural Vermont campus. That mandate would, for example, include a clearer location of responsibility within the administration and sufficient engagement of the college’s general counsel, the campus or local chief of police, and other senior officials with expertise in scheduling major events.
Third, formal faculty involvement at Middlebury seems to have been limited if not absent. The location of such responsibility should target a Faculty Senate or other governance body, with a smaller executive committee capable of being convened almost momentarily in event of a crisis. An abundance of relevant materials exists for this purpose, and it may well be that Middlebury’s faculty leadership has in fact consulted them in the past.
Finally, we can hardly overlook the responsibility of the student body. There is much still be to learned about how and why the dozen black-clad and masked intruders were able to enter -- as well as why so few of the rank-and-file Middlebury students resisted or were even indifferent as essentially an angry mob turned their backs on the speaker and continue to shout and jeer. A strong elected student government seems indispensable to such a liberal arts college, visible both to the general and social media as well as within the broader community of which the institution is a major component. Middlebury seems to offer a promising academic venue within which to establish a sounder approach as the next crisis looms.
Robert M. O’Neil is the former president of the University of Virginia and of the University of Wisconsin System, former director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, and founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. He is currently a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.
When the alleged perpetrator is a person with whom we feel some sort of affiliation or reverence, we start to make excuses and bend over backward to deny the plausibility of the victim’s experience, writes Jamie L. Small.
The State of Wisconsin Group Health Insurance is no longer covering procedures, services or supplies related to gender reassignment as part of its uniform benefits. The University of Wisconsin System shared news of the change, which was effective last month, with employees this week via email. Steph Tai, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the Committee for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer People in the University is planning a formal response to the change. A university system spokesperson referred requests for comment to state officials.
Wisconsin halted gender reassignment coverage for transgender state workers after a brief period of availability in January. The Group Insurance Board, which oversees benefits, decided in July to add coverage for transgender services this calendar year, according to guidance that the Affordable Care Act required such coverage, the Wisconsin State-Journalreported. But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, asked the board to reconsider, via the state Department of Justice. It said that providing transgender services was based on “unlawful” rules that “improperly interpret” Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit gender discrimination in education. A state consultant reportedly estimated that two to five people would have used the transgender services per year, at a cost of up to $250,000 annually in a $1.5 billion program that covers 250,000 employees and dependents.
We might provide the most detailed of instructions, but students will still find a reason to challenge those instructions as inadequate and shift the responsibility of the work to us, writes Lori Isbell.
If we strike while the iron is hot, this could be an opportunity not just to defend some abstract understanding of “science” but also to advance a much stronger vision of how science can serve the common good. Scientists and others in the STEM fields should make lasting commitments to stand in solidarity with the people of the world most harmed not just by the Trump administration but also by oppression and exploitation in all their forms.
The pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of society has already long been shackled. Ask Marc Edwards. He's the Virginia Tech professor who worked with people in Flint, Mich., to expose the poisoning of their water supply. In an interview titled “Public Science Is Broken,” Edwards criticized the “perverse incentives” offered to faculty members and the risks involved in challenging the people who provide research funding. He concluded, “We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill -- pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index -- and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.”
That treadmill is not the science we need to defend. Nor is the science that profits agribusiness at the expense of impoverished farmers, torments villagers with the threat of drone strikes or otherwise privileges the acquisition of knowledge beneficial to corporate and military interests above that which supports human needs.
We should also be wary of defending science when it is imagined to be the province solely of an expert elite. We can respect the knowledge science produces while recognizing the many people from diverse social backgrounds who contribute to it: not just Ph.D.s but also farmers, members of environmental justice communities, people living with illnesses under research and many others.
The science we should rally to defend is that which people pursue with political consciousness for the benefits it brings to society and the planet. Lest anyone see that as too utilitarian, I would hasten to emphasize that charting the stars, learning the language of dolphins and pursuing a great many other subjects that bring us enlightenment qualify as benefiting society, provided we keep a sharp eye on how such knowledge is acquired and applied.
More than just defending such science, we must create a vibrant movement of STEM workers who see their survival and liberation as tied to the survival and liberation of poor people, people of color, people in the global South and others who are most vulnerable to the disasters our political and economic systems have produced.
This is hardly the first time scientists have organized to engage politically. In the United States today, the Union of Concerned Scientists is perhaps the most familiar organization that continues to promote, mainly through policy advocacy, what it calls “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” Their work remains invaluable.
However, we should also recognize other groups in different times and places, many of which have adopted more activist approaches and an analysis more sharply focused on wresting science from the oppressive power structures of capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism, and placing it in the service of social needs. The British Science and Society Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indian Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad founded in 1962, and the Philippine AGHAM: Advocates of Science and Technology for the People founded in 1999 are just a few examples.
The United States once had its own activist science organization, called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, better known as Science for the People. The original organization formed in 1969 out of the rising tide of opposition to the war in Vietnam. Although it folded in 1989, its members carried their cause forward. Former SftP members have been involved in improving health and safety for factory workers, mobilizing farming communities to document and resist pesticide exposure, working with communities in Eritrea and Malawi to develop sustainable energy technologies, researching and promoting agro-ecological approaches to farming in the United States and Latin America, and many other areas of politically engaged, socially conscious science.
The Science for the People movement is currently being revitalized; chapters are now forming on campuses at Columbia, Cornell and Emory Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania and Tennessee at Knoxville. Numbers will no do doubt swell as the Trump administration helps make the stakes clearer to STEM workers and students across the country and the world.
In times of political crisis, some people may be tempted to embrace science as an apolitical force of reason. While science does offer reason, it does not do so in a political vacuum. We have political choices to make. We have to decide what kind of science is worth making and worth fighting for. We have to make that science. And we have to fight for it.
Sigrid Schmalzer is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Science for the People: Documents From America's Movement of Radical Scientists, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press.
I spent a recent weekend interviewing blow-your-socks-off-smart applicants for my biology department’s Ph.D. program. I was uncertain how to respond to their need for reassurance about the future of American science. Since then, I’ve continued to reflect on what to say to the next generation of scientists, and what their collective decisions mean for the future of science and the economy in the United States. How do I reassure such bright young people as they decide whether to start their careers during an administration hostile not just to scientific integrity and independent inquiry, but seemingly to science itself?
How will we keep America’s reputation for scientific innovation if aspiring applicants to Ph.D. programs decide to forgo science or find that opportunities are reduced or constrained because of new federal policies? The anxiety I see in them is the first nick to the reputation of American universities and national laboratories -- regarded by most people as the best in the world -- a reputation that is now being harmed, as is the country’s economic competitiveness. Unless the statements and actions from the new administration change quickly, such weekends at universities across America this spring will, like our recent weekend, be overshadowed by dismay, disorientation and fear instead of the usual mix of optimism and excitement about future careers in scientific discovery.
Ordinarily, I am cautiously optimistic when confronted with potentially troublesome news, but continuing pronouncements from the Trump administration imposing gag orders and grant freezes on scientific government institutions have left me rather pessimistic, at least for the near future. Never in my 32 years as a university scientist have I experienced such high-level disregard from our government for expert information -- indeed, for facts of any kind -- and for the contributions of foreigners to the economic engines driven by scientific and technological research. This disregard, this disdain, for facts is troubling enough on its own. But for scientists it strikes at the very heart of our enterprise: working within constraints that require rigorous, logical evaluation of information before any conclusions are published or promoted.
A generous interpretation of what’s been occurring in these first months of the new administration is no longer possible. While it is normal for new administrations to issue gag orders for a temporary settling-in period so that new priorities for programs and external communications can be set, it is obvious that the new policies coming out of the Trump White House are lining up with base and baseless campaign rhetoric denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change, the values of environmental protection and the contribution of immigrants -- including Muslims -- to our nation’s scientific enterprise and economic innovation.
It is imperative that university faculty and the public are not distracted by the reckless stream of pronouncements coming from the White House. Behind the tweets, substantial long-term damage is quietly being inflicted on the integrity of science and therefore on the formulation of effective policies for improvements in medicine, technology and environmental management -- with negative long-term consequences for human welfare and our economy. Those potentially staggering changes are occurring by both omission and commission and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to similarly minded congressional GOP leadership.
The strong bipartisan support for environmental protection that prevailed for most of the last 50 years -- which gained the greatest momentum under President Richard M. Nixon -- is giving way to the fictions that environmental quality is not linked to human health and that environmental improvements always come at the cost of economic activity. Of course, policy making requires always requires balancing competing priorities, but what is being set in motion by the new administration can hardly be described as a rebalancing of trade-offs.
For example, House Bill 589 would limit funds for climate research at the national laboratories where some of the world’s greatest advances occur in understanding how our planet’s climate works and relates to the extremes of weather that pose such an increasing threat to our coastal cities and infrastructure. Think of the experience of California in the last year -- switching from the worst drought in recorded history to some of the worst flooding.
House Bill 673 would prohibit American contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been a model of global scientific consensus building, and which has in turn fostered international policy cooperation vital to future human welfare. That same bill would prevent future contributions by the United States to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund, which could be the most economically efficient way to adapt to changing climate globally. We can help vulnerable countries prepare for continuing climate change now, or we can deal with climate-driven conflicts and refugee crises later. The relentless civil war in Syria has its roots partly in drought-induced internal migrations of farmers and in food insecurity.
Closer to home, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy, are the antitheses of the scientists, including Nobel laureates, who have led such agencies in past Republican and Democratic administrations. Pruitt, who spent much of his career as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing EPA, is dismissive of overwhelming data on the value to human health of EPA’s efforts to reduce air and water pollution. He and Trump have vowed to reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
Furthermore, a combination of executive and congressional actions have demolished the U.S. Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, as well as its rule to reduce leaks of methane from natural gas wells. Methane is a far more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.
Finally, House Bill 861 would terminate the EPA entirely. Not only do these actions not add up to a recipe for clean air and clean water, which the president purports to support, but they also are in fact a direct assault on human health.
The administration’s disregard for science is also manifest in what has not been done. No one has been nominated for most senior positions usually occupied by scientists, including the science adviser to the president and the administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (an agency that provides most of the weather data used by most news broadcasts in the country). At this same point in most recent administrations, most of these vital positions had been filled. Scientists are being omitted from decision making, even while decisions are rolling back the effectiveness and use of American science.
The lack of leadership on scientific and environmental issues couldn’t make China happier. Currently leading the United States in the use of renewable energies, Chinese competitors of American companies in renewable energy technology see new markets and expanded prosperity opening up to them. The same can be said for European competitors. What the Trump administration fails to realize is that technology doesn’t just build engines; the scientific enterprise is itself an engine that creates jobs from the lab to the land -- an economic multiplier with extraordinary reach. According to a recent National Science Foundation report, “Asia now accounts for 40 percent of global research and development, with China as the standout.” Given the trajectory of the current administration, the United States will not be first for much longer.
Good reputations take a long time to earn but can be destroyed quickly. That is true for individuals, institutions and countries. Intellectual capital and scientific programs take a long time to build. The current candidate pool for faculty jobs in my department has a higher than usual number of scientists with strong careers in national laboratories. The ongoing exodus of prominent, highly motivated scientists from national laboratories and other agencies portends a potentially quick decline for the quality of policy-relevant federal research.
So what should I have said to the worried Ph.D. candidates, and what will I say to the postdoctoral candidates from Australia, Canada and Germany who I am currently interviewing?
Do not let the relentless onslaught of tweets distract you. Do not respond in kind.
Keep your eyes and ears on the people who are being appointed and on what policies are actually being considered. Become engaged in your scientific society to amplify your scientific voice. Advocate for the value of scientific information.
Without anger, with patience and practicing humility, engage in civil discourse about what we scholars have been privileged to spend our lives learning: scientific practice is rigorous and winnowing; facts are hard won; science produces reliable information; and in the long run, human health and happiness depend on effective and efficient environmental protection. Encourage your representative to spend a few days breathing the air in Delhi or Beijing if they seem to doubt that.
Do not pretend that scientific information often leads clearly to any particular policy action. Rather, acknowledge that many other considerations are required in democratic decision making, but that scientists are not merely another special interest. Advocate for science and scientists to be appointed to high positions and sought out for their information and advice.
Make it clear that, ultimately, truth and civility must prevail.
David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.