Divesting From Fossil Fuels: The Student Assault on the Academy

College students and supporters hold up signs at a rally to support fossil fuel divestment outside of City Hall in San Franci
College students and supporters hold up signs at a rally to support fossil fuel divestment outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Thursday, May 2, 2013. In an effort to slow the pace of climate change, students at more than 200 colleges are asking their schools to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

There's a lot of news coming out of our college campuses these days and much of it re-raises an old question: To what degree, if any, should colleges and universities be responsive to pressing social and political issues? To my mind, the definitive answer to that question was given in 2003 by the provost of the University of Wisconsin at Madison when he addressed students who were demanding that the university take a stand on the then impending invasion of Iraq. The provost said, "The University of Wisconsin does not have a foreign policy."

I take that to be a slightly cryptic statement of what the business of a university is and isn't. It isn't to pronounce on foreign policy issues or on domestic policy issues, either. Rather, the university's business is to advance the knowledge of the phenomena -- physical, social, cultural, aesthetic -- its faculty members are trained to investigate. That's the task -- all of it.

The only time the university should insert itself into a debate is when the debate is about the funding or monitoring of higher education. On all other matters it should be silent. Not only should the university not have a foreign policy, it shouldn't have any policy, whether it be economic (although it should husband its resources prudently), political, agricultural, military -- whatever. The reason is simple: The university is not an ideological agent; it doesn't have an axe to grind; it doesn't have a dog in the hunt unless the hunt is for more dollars to support its classroom and research activities. Had the University of Wisconsin taken a stand on the question of whether to invade Iraq, it would have ceased to be an educational institution and would have become the mouthpiece of a partisan agenda.

I've said these things many times before, but there is new reason to say them now. On the 10th of this month, The National Association of Scholars (NAS) published a report titled Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels. The report surveys the efforts of many students and some faculty members to get colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel stocks on the reasoning that the energy industry is the chief contributor to climate change and constitutes a danger to the life of the planet. Here is a statement by student activist Chloe Maxmin:

"The divestment movement... aims to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry by rebranding it as a social pariah and a rogue political force that preys on our future. We want to make it socially unacceptable for politicians and institutions to support a reckless industry that manipulates the political system and values short term profits over humanity's survival."

Now, shaming the fossil fuel industry might very well be a good thing to do (I am not going to pronounce on the substantive question), but it is not an academically good thing to do. The category "good things to do" is practice specific: There are no generally good things to do, only things that are good to do given the aims and values of the particular enterprise in which they're being done. If the enterprise is the academy, then the list of good things to do is limited to things that contribute to pedagogical goals narrowly conceived -- the goal of introducing students to materials with which they were previously unfamiliar and the goal of equipping students with analytical skills. Saving the world from fossil fuels is not a pedagogical goal and doesn't belong either in the classroom or in the mission statement of a university.

There's nothing wrong with students and faculty members working for a sustainable environment, as long as they do it after hours when they are acting as citizens and not as students and teachers. It is wrong, however, for students and faculty to appropriate the name of the university or its core activities for partisan purposes. When Professor Bill McKibben of Middlebury College urged Swarthmore faculty members to join the divestment campaign, he said, "This is what tenure was made for."

Precisely wrong. Tenure was made to protect academics from the pressure to conform their teaching to the political views of external constituencies. (You should follow the evidence to wherever it leads, not to where the church or a trustee or a politician or a donor wants it to lead.) Tenure was not made to allow academics to push their own political views in the classroom or the academic senate. Pushing political views in academic spaces is the very antithesis both of tenure and academic freedom. The independence and integrity of the enterprise depends on keeping the academic and the political realms separate. Divesting from fossil fuels dissolves the boundary line.

The point is made powerfully by Drew Faust, President of Harvard:

"We should ... be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution. Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise."

Faust's reasoning is conceptual, not practical. She does not bother with some of the other reasons universities give for declining to divest -- the endowment will suffer, the effects will be minimal, the effort will be merely symbolic. Those are not relevant reasons. They do not go to the core of the matter, which is that divesting from fossil fuels for political reasons is not an agenda that an educational institution can properly have, although divesting because of a calculation that the university's financial situation would be improved would be perfectly fine.

For much of its history the American academy has been fending off the attempts of various forces to hijack the enterprise for foreign ends. Now the invading force resides on the inside in the form of students who want colleges and universities to be the vehicle of their preferred causes. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is one of their fronts; the demand for "trigger warnings" -- warnings about course materials that might cause offense or discomfort -- is another. Both must be resisted, as must any effort to make the academy an instrument of some political goal.

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