22 June 2010

Do Climate Black Lists Matter?

Do climate black lists matter? Or are they just tribalism at worst and fun and games on the internet at best? Surely, such lists couldn't be used to affect someone's career, could they?

With this post I'll share some personal experience to explain why I think such lists matter. Here is an email that (presumably) all University of Colorado-Boulder faculty received from the Boulder Faculty Assembly (BFA) just before the summer break less than one month ago (emphasis added):
Dear Colleagues,

Attached is a copy of the BFA update, providing you with an opportunity to learn about what your faculty governance organization is concerned with. Please note the item about the Regents' guiding principles and their expressed preference for political and intellectual balance on the faculty. This is of great concern to the social sciences and humanities, but may also affect engineering and science faculties. The guideline could require a search committee to inquire about:

1. an individual faculty member's perspective on environment, energy and global warming,

2. an individual faculty member's perspective on creation and the origin of the universe,

3. an individual faculty member's perspective on evolution.

Please let me know your opinion of these . . .
What I understand this to mean is that a search committee for a new faculty hire could be required to ask about the candidates' views on "environment, energy and global warming" as a matter of obtaining their political views, which presumably would be factored into a hiring decision to achieve some sort of "political and intellectual balance." Now I can't speak for anyone else, but I find this to be stepping on a slippery slope. I will strongly object to any such "oaths of allegiance" as a condition of or factor in hiring faculty on our campus.

Let me also relate a related personal story (one of several that I could share). Several years ago I was invited by Republican staff to testify before a congressional committee. My general policy on such requests is that when I am invited by government to present my views I will do so regardless of those doing the asking, so long as I can present my views unaltered and directly. After all, my salary and research funds are from the public and I see it as my responsibility to participate in the political process whenever asked. I have in the past testified at the request of both Democrats and Republicans.

At the time I was invited a few liberal bloggers made a big deal about me having been invited by Republicans and posted on it on their blogs. Subsequently, a number of climate scientists contacted my Chancellor's office to complain that my association with the Republicans was unhelpful (because I am perceived to be credible) and asked if anything could be done about it.

A high-up university official (who will go unnamed but who sat in the direct chain of command between my chair and the Chancellor) asked me to lunch, told me about the messages that had been received by the Chancellor's office and warned me in no uncertain terms that I should think carefully about testifying for the Republicans because my career could suffer. The message that I heard was that I had better not testify or else my career might suffer. I took this as a direct threat from an official with influence on my career at the university and I said so on the spot. I was shocked to be in such a conversation. I immediately protested via email to my chair and institute director, invoking academic freedom and tenure. At that point the university official backed down and apologized, claiming a misunderstanding.

Did I actually feel threatened? Not really. I have tenure and a strong academic record. I was more angry with and disappointed in my university. Was the experience a window into how politicized the climate issue is in academia? You bet. Had I not had tenure, been earlier in my career with more decisions to come before higher-ups in my future or been a bit more sensitive to such things I can see how it would be enormously chilling to an academic to have such an experience.

So do black lists of people espousing certain views on climate science trouble me? Yes. It is easy to connect the dots between a university considering "loyalty oaths" -- black lists -- and a hyper-politicized academic environment to see what can result. Such lists are particularly troubling when they are advanced and endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences, which is a quasi-government entity receiving considerable public funds, while my own university is debating an oath of allegiance on climate change as a possible condition of employment.

So, is invoking the specter of McCarthyism going too far? For me it is not.