- November 15, 2012
Peter Wood's article was originally published in Minding the Campus here.
UCLA has found a novel way to improve the politicization of its curriculum. UCLA Today, the faculty and staff newspaper, reports that the university's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Sustainability Committee have teamed up to help faculty members across the university figure out ways to slip sustainability messages into their classes, regardless of the actual subjects they are teaching. Participating faculty members get a two-hour workshop and a $1,200 grant to turn their courses into vehicles of sustaina-ganda.
The newspaper account highlights political science professor Miriam Golden who is using the extra money to change reading lists, data sets, homework assignments. Professor Golden is ardently behind the cause. "I think climate change is the largest global challenge to ever face the human race, and we need to help students understand the social and political implications," she says. But the money clearly helps. She wouldn't be altering the content of her courses without it.
Is it a good thing when a third party puts money on the table to ensure that a particular point of view gets extra attention and favorable treatment in a public university? Not when Charles G. Koch pledged $1.5 million to support faculty appointments in Florida State University's economics department for the purpose of promoting "political economy and free enterprise." When that story broke in Spring 2011, the higher education establishment expressed dismay at the supposed affront to academic freedom. Two FSU professors, Kent Miller and Ray Bellamy, led the charge against the "intrusive actions" of the funders, but a faculty panel grudgingly found the grant acceptable. The progressive commentariate could hardly find enough exclamation points to express its outrage at this commercial sullying of the pure soul of academic inquiry.
I don't expect that UCLA's little experiment in cash incentives to faculty members who adjust their teaching in the direction of global warming hysteria and the virtues of sustainability will elicit any similar disdain. But the Koch "intrusion" at Florida State and the sustainability grants at UCLA are really two sides of the same coin. Charles Koch would like universities to teach more about the virtues of free markets. The sustainability crowd generally views free markets as a deep source of environmental ruination. Both sides are ready to put some money into the game. The Koch grant supports the appointment of faculty members in one department who would be explicitly identified as advocates for a point of view. The UCLA program is meant to insinuate a point of view across the whole curriculum. Which sounds more likely to infringe on the integrity of academic programs or the intellectual freedom of students?
UCLA innovation is the cash incentive, not the attempt at broader product placement. The effort to get sustainability incorporated in every class has been a goal of the sustainability movement for some time. The question for the sustainatopians has been how best to make this happen. The National Association of Scholars has watched these efforts unfold first as naked aggression, as we reported in "An Elbow in the Ribs: Prof-Prodding Toward Sustainability." Sometimes it took more than an elbow bestowed on the reluctant professor, as we observed in "The Sustainability Inquisition." Carrots in the form of cash incentives are arguably an improvement over the sticks that the movement more typically uses.
The money might be put to some good uses. Who would object to the Earth and Space Sciences professor taking the cash to make videos of fluid dynamics to explain how the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" came about? There is, however, something a little unsettling about an effort to make every class in a university into a brick in a wall of advocacy. "Sustainability" falsely presents itself as settled wisdom not only about the science of climate change, but about the proper economic, political, and social responses. These are matters where students deserve the benefit of hearing the best arguments from all sides. UCLA's decision to stack the deck is, unfortunately, all too common for the University of California. The best response from UCLA faculty members would be to refuse the money and to teach their courses in the spirit of fair-minded scholarship, not as exercises in recruitment to a cause.