Sustainability Skepticism Has Arrived

Ashley Thorne

The sustainability movement has gained surprising momentum on college campuses in recent years. The term “sustainability” has overwhelmingly positive associations for students and many administrators and faculty members, and hardly any skeptics—or at least skeptics who announce their skepticism. We at NAS have sought to fill that gap. We have doubts about “sustainability,” mainly along the lines that the movement the sells eco-responsibility but delivers big government, economic redistribution, and loss of individual freedoms.  

Why Not Challenge Him?

But this week, controversies at two major universities brought sustainability skepticism out in the open. First, in September California Polytechnic State University President Warren Baker received a letter from David Wood, a Cal Poly alumnus and major donor. Wood, the chairman of Harris Ranch Beef Company, which has pledged $500,000 for a new meat processing facility to be built on campus, expressed concern over the university’s decision to invite Michael Pollan—a journalism professor at UC Berkeley and an advocate of “sustainable” food and agriculture—to speak at Cal Poly unchallenged on October 15. Wood was surprised that the university would give Pollan an open forum “to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices,” especially since that stand contradicts the traditional training in Cal Poly’s agricultural program. Wood suggested that the university modify its event by offering a pluralism of views:

I understand that Mr. Pollan refused to appear in a panel format, which strongly suggests that he wants to avoid exposing his views to scrutiny by experts with whom he disagrees. Why not challenge him to appear with those holding competing views to foster a truly open discussion of issues?

The university took Wood’s advice and put together a panel discussion to follow Pollan’s speech. But Pollan was outraged. Speaking at a conference for an organization called Bioneers, he said, “When I go speak at a school that has an agricultural component now the donors come down like a ton of bricks on the school and force them to offer equal time to the Harris Ranches of the world, to the Farm Bureau people, and so they are fighting back. Make no mistake.” According to the Los Angeles Times, Pollan “said the Harris letter raised troubling questions about academic freedom.” Interestingly, the LA Times article was entitled “California agribusiness pressures school to nix Michael Pollan lecture.” But David Wood never asked Cal Poly to nix the lecture, just to present another opinion that would be consistent with the university’s established approach to agricultural education.

One student, a senior at Cal Poly, created a Facebook group, “CP Ag Department Supports Radical Anti-Agriculturist, Michael Pollan?!” to foster discussion about the situation and document the letters between Wood and Baker. The group now has 388 members, most of whom share Wood’s concerns.

A writer for the local newspaper New Times, however, was shocked by the university’s decision to incorporate a panel discussion into Pollan’s program, and she hurled the world’s second worst accusation against the administration: “you don’t prioritize sustainability” (the worst is “you’re a racist”):

Moreover, Baker refused to refused to [sic] sign the American College & University Presidents’ [sic] Climate Commitment plan, even though Cal Poly signed the Talloires Declaration in 2004 that calls for administrators to foster environmental sustainability in higher education.  It’s clear the administration does not prioritize sustainability. One of the action items demands university heads to “Use every opportunity to ... [continue] publicly addressing the urgent need to move toward an environmentally sustainable future.” President Baker is failing the declaration, undermining sustainability by taking outside money with strings attached. There should be no price tag to quiet the sustainability movement.

NAS, however, is thrilled that President Baker refused to sign the Climate Commitment, which encourages colleges to implement a “climate action litmus test” when hiring new leaders.


In his second letter to President Baker, David Wood wrote that he earnestly hoped the university leaders “understand this Pollan issue is bigger than the executives at Harris ranch… it’s bigger than Cal Poly alumni involved in the animal production industry. This whole mess is having a profound impact not just on Cal Poly, but rather, on Ag schools across this great nation. We believe this is a wakeup call to those in academia.”

Yes, I Do Advocate

 The second incident appeared in the news this week under the headline, “U of Alaska Rejects Retaliation Claim from Scientist Who Criticized Big Oil” (Chronicle of Higher Education, subscription required). Richard Steiner, a professor in the University of Alaska’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, has brought a grievance against the university for denying him grant funding. Steiner had been a Sea Grant Extension recipient under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but after NOAA notified the university that Steiner was using the money to finance advocacy, it chose to deny him the funds but to make up the difference with university money. Kate Ripley, a spokesperson for the University of Alaska, said that grant recipients are to be “neutral brokers of information” and that the agency had said, “Hey, this guy doesn’t look like he’s working within the parameters of the grant.” The Sea Grant Extension’s policy states, “Although advocacy can be seductive, there are many reasons why SGE professionals avoid it at all costs.” According to the program, those reasons include:  

  • Research is not needed for advocacy
  • We lose objectivity
  • We may lose our credibility with those clients who in good faith come to a different decision.

These are reasonable parameters to place on grants that go to fund disinterested scientific research. Professor Steiner, however, has for years actively engaged in advocacy for sustainability and against oil companies, and he has sought to carve out special benefits for himself in the process. Roger Brunner, representing the university, rejected Steiner’s grievance claims in a memo. According to the Chronicle:

“In many regards, the current claims appear to be a continuation of Professor Steiner's attempt to free himself from supervision and to have the university create a different job for him which would be more to his liking,” Mr. Brunner wrote in the memorandum, which noted that the grievance requested that the university establish a “permanent, autonomous faculty chair for environmental sustainability” on the professor's behalf.

Steiner also accused the university of punishing him for filing the grievance by moving his office, another claim the Brunner rejected in the memo: “There is no harassment nor retaliation in requiring Professor Steiner to work with his coworkers in their facility.”

In a video interview on Democracy Now, Steiner said, “The university certainly took adverse administrative action against me for speaking up, speaking my truth.” There’s a key word here. See if you can spot it; it’s also here: “How does that jive with the university’s academic freedom policies or where faculty are supposed to speak and teach their truth without fear of reprisal?”

Steiner speaks of “my truth” and “their truth” and believes that the University of Alaska has violated his academic freedom. He says that AAUP policies back him up on this, and unfortunately, that’s correct. The AAUP now promotes a twisted definition of truth and in its 2007 report “Freedom in the Classroom” says that “truth” is whatever the members of an academic discipline say it is. NAS has published a line-by-line critique of this report. As Peter Wood and Steve Balch wrote, the AAUP’s method “transforms all truth-seeking into a game of disciplinary consensus.”

They concluded:

The issue is that academic freedom requires academic responsibility. The AAUP firmly declared this in its original 1915 statement on academic freedom, and it remains true to this day. Neglect or abandonment of those responsibilities—to seek the truth, to refrain from using the authority of an academic position to advocate on issues outside one's professional competence—could lead to disaster. Unfortunately, the AAUP today seems intent on courting exactly that.

Indeed, true academic freedom, as set down by the 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles, does not allow for “my truth” and “your truth” but calls on faculty members to be “trained for, and dedicated to, the quest for truth.” Just one truth. This weekend, Dr. Wood and Dr. Balch are speaking at the Philadelphia Society Regional Meeting on “Assaults on Truth-Seeking.” The AAUP’s wayward 2007 statement and the implications it carries for people such as Richard Steiner are a poignant example of an assault on truth-seeking. When you have your truth and I have mine, how are we ever to find the truth?

Steiner went on in the interview: “This argument that I was somehow an advocate, well, guilty as charged. Yes, I do advocate. I advocate for environmental sustainability and conservation, and that’s where it rubs up against some very strong political forces here in Alaska.”

Third Stage?

These stories are parallel. Both Michael Pollan and Richard Steiner were caught off guard when challenged, then played the victim in the name of academic freedom—a skewed version of academic freedom. When David Wood sought to open Cal Poly’s eyes to the ideological agenda Pollan proselytizes, Pollan and others accused the university of cravenly capitulating to demands from the big bad corporate world. And when NOAA identified Steiner as going outside Sea Grant parameters by engaging in advocacy, Steiner said the University of Alaska had put a “gag order” on him.

In both cases, the university did the fair thing. Cal Poly did not dis-invite Pollan (as St. Louis University recently dis-invited David Horowitz) and the University of Alaska supplied the funds Steiner would have received from the grant. These institutions also recognized that true academic freedom means responsibility. As Roger Brunner of the University of Alaska wrote in his memo, “Free speech is not freedom from the requirements to do one's job and to respond to reasonable direction.” Both Pollan and Steiner seemed to think that academic freedom entitled them to have their own way. And wielding the sword of the sustainability movement, they thought, gave them an added immunity. It makes sense that they would assume such immunity, as it has been granted to most everyone like them before now.

These two controversies, occurring within a week of one another, wrought an unexpected clash between sustainability ideologues and universities that decided to stand on fundamental principles of higher education. They mark a turning point in the campus sustainability movement that has gone largely unchallenged as it has grown into a giant prickly blob intent on consuming all of higher education. It will be unchallenged no longer.

Michael Pollan, however, is pumped for the fight; he said at the Bioneers conference:

We are in that third stage of what Gandhi talked about, you know, first they ignore you, and we had years and years of that. Then they ridicule you, which was a couple years ago, and then they fight you, which is right now. And what’s the fourth stage? Then you win.

Not on our watch, Michael.

You can help the NAS expose the truth about the campus sustainability movement by sending our list of “10 Reasons to Oppose the Sustainability Movement on Campus” to students, parents, faculty members, administrators, and news media.


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