Neander-Thoughts: Reply to Steiner

Peter Wood

Professor Richard Steiner at the University of Alaska has a dim view of the National Association of Scholars.  He also has a dim view of University of Alaska president Mark Hamilton, along with other members of the University’s administration. The dimness of Professor Steiner’s view extends to Shell Oil and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In fact, Professor Steiner appears to be something of a professional taker-of-dim-views who dedicates himself to spreading his crepuscular judgment of the energy industry as widely as possible. 

Last week, Ashley Thorne posted to this site a short article, Sustainability Skepticism Has Arrived, that drew attention to a story reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Professor Steiner’s collision with the University of Alaska.  The University took him off a NOAA-administered Sea Grant Extension Grant on the grounds that he had violated the terms of the award, which prohibited using the money for advocacy.  

This would seem to be a clear-cut factual question.  Did Professor Steiner use research funds to engage in advocacy?  If so, the University acted properly.  If not, the University mis-stepped. 

The National Association of Scholars doesn’t have special access to details that aren’t public. Mrs. Thorne relied on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s account, supplemented by a video of Professor Steiner himself, posted to the left-wing website Democracy Now!. On the face of things, Professor Steiner appears be unabashedly the advocate the University says he is, and someone who ignored warnings that his advocacy transgressed the conditions of his NOAA funding.  He doesn’t seem to deny the reality of the charge so much as shrug it off with a version of everybody does it.  That excuse in turn depends on an unwarranted and capacious definition of “advocacy” that collapses together outright political activism with empirical research findings that might prove to be useful to the oil industry. 

Mrs. Thorne contacted Professor Steiner to draw his attention to her article. That is something NAS routinely does when we write about a person involved in a controversy.  Professor Steiner replied abusively, writing:

“My only reply would be that Neanderthals didn't think they had to worry about sustainability either, and look what happened to them. You folks are in good company.”

Mrs. Thorne contacted him again to clarify that this “comment” was indeed for attribution.  Professor Steiner replied with the longer statement that we have now posted in which he defends his actions at the University of Alaska, repeats his charge that his academic freedom has been violated, and demands that the NAS “rescind” an award we bestowed on President Hamilton in 2002. 

We don’t begrudge an academic we have criticized the opportunity to present his case to the public.  We printed Professor Steiner’s statement unedited.  It would be nice if Professor Steiner’s supporters had shown us the same courtesy.  The Progressive Alaska blog, written by Philip Munger, headlines the Steiner story and weaves in the NAS connection.  To portray the NAS’s views on the sustainability movement, Munger reprints “the main points” from a broadside we published for student newspapers—and omits all of the footnotes referencing the detailed work on which the generalizations rest.   If fair-minded representation of our views had been his motive, Munger could have summarized, linked, or at least mentioned any of the in-depth articles we have published on the topic, perhaps this one.  His goal, however, seems to be not to understand an opposing view but to discredit it.

We don’t know who Munger is and we don’t hold Steiner responsible for mutilating our views, but the incident does bear on the degree to which the sustainability advocates tend to ride roughshod over the niceties of academic exchange. 

For the record, we do worry about sustainability, but we worry about it as a campus movement that frequently subordinates the search for truth to ideological advocacy.  The NAS has steered clear of discussion of the merits of global warming theory and other matters of scientific investigation, except to the extent that we have noticed the increasing tendency of sustainability advocates to marginalize or attempt to silence scientists who dissent from their views. In that vein, we think academic freedom issues are in play. 

They could be in play as well if there were evidence that sustainability advocates are being censored by academic administrators or faculty colleagues.  But we have yet to encounter a case of sustainability advocates being denied their academic freedom.  Professor Steiner thinks his situation presents just such a case. To that end he has written to President Hamilton to challenge him to a debate.  The terms of his challenge are posted on several websites, and include:

Given recent circumstances, I would like to invite you to debate with me, openly and publicly, re: the issue of academic freedom, and the influence of corporate donations to the university.

We leave the merits of Professor Steiner’s arguments to our readers to judge.  But a part of his declaration concerns us more narrowly.  Does NAS have an obligation to rescind its 2002 award to President Hamilton for his support for academic freedom?

The short answer is no. We honored President Hamilton back then for the stand he took in defending campus freedom of speech.  He had stood up to a campaign to vilify a creative writing professor, Linda McCarriston, for having published a poem titled “Indian Girls” that was taken amiss by an Alaska Native activist.  (The poem referred to the sexual abuse and exploitation of some Indian girls in their native communities.)  McCarriston, a feminist and liberal, was hung out to dry by her department chairman and various University officials.  She was also subject to a heavy-handed investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which wanted to know whether McCarriston had created a “hostile climate” for Native American students at UA. The main evidence is that she had given a B to one Native student. 

The story is drearily familiar.  An activist slanders a faculty member for supposedly politically incorrect views, and the whole academic herd suddenly turns on that faculty member.  Partly it is fear, as in the calculation, ‘If I don’t attack her too, I might be suspected of sympathy with her.’  And partly it is the unseemly joy that academics have in attacking the weak. 

But this story ended in an unusual way.  On March 13, 2001, President Hamilton sent a memo to the chancellors of the three UA universities setting forth clearly and unambiguously his support for free speech.  He named McCarriston, and called out the bullies:

Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message. 

There is nothing to “check into,” nothing “to investigate.” 

The National Association of Scholars was alerted to this development by our Alaska chapter, whose president Judy Kleinfeld proposed the award.  We were glad to give it, and President Hamilton certainly deserved it.  Few—very, very few—American college and university presidents have so effectively stood up to the mania for PC “investigations,” the witch hunts of our era.

Incidental to the award, but of interest in retrospect, President Hamilton’s letter defending Professor McCarriston also defended the rights of two groups of campus dissenters to speak their views without fear of punishment. One defended a campus speaker who advocated for the legalization of assisted suicide. The other defended the rights of professors who had taken an unpopular stand in Alaska by asking President Clinton to make the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to oil development.  

President Hamilton doesn’t really come across here as a zealous advocate for the oil interests or someone eager to trammel the free speech of big oil’s critics. 

Professor Steiner argues that President Hamilton is all words but no action.  Hamilton, according to Steiner, speaks out for free speech but doesn’t support it in the clutch.  President Hamilton can respond to this accusation as he wishes.  Our view is that Professor Steiner has adopted a flawed idea of free speech and is a little too eager to lash out at those he disagrees with by finding them (and us) insufficiently committed to his own program.

So let’s put it like this.  No, we won’t “rescind” our award to President Hamilton. Yes, we think the sustainability movement engages in hyperbole and in many instances seems at odds with core academic values.  We have made our case for this in some thirty articles published on this website in the last two years and we will soon be publishing a special issue of Academic Questions in which other scholars weigh in.  Our views are not reducible to the “Neanderthal” caricature that Professor Steiner, perhaps in a heated moment, bestowed on us. Yes, we support academic freedom. That term, however, is more than a slogan to us.  We have been publishing thoughtful examinations of the ideal and the practice of academic freedom for almost a quarter century.  My personal views are posted here in Academic Freedom and Discontent

And, yes, we support the right of Professor Steiner to speak his mind about sustainability, but his academic freedom gives him no follow-on right to accept public funding under false pretenses.  Sometimes we have to make choices.  Taking money for scientific investigation and then using it to fund political advocacy isn’t an exercise in academic freedom.  It is, at best, an act of deviousness.  It sounds to me like a form of academic dishonesty, not an act of academic freedom.  But let me hold that criticism in abeyance.  If Professor Steiner can defend his actions without twisting the terms of academic freedom into self-serving knots, let him do so. 

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