Iowa may be known as a swing state, but Iowa City, home of the state’s flagship public university, has a reputation as liberal. As R. Tyler Priest, a history professor at the University of Iowa, puts it: “We’re seen as an island of socialism in the state of Iowa.” That reputation set the university at odds with Des Moines after Republicans gained control of the House, Senate, and governorship in 2016, for the first time since 1998.
In recent weeks, the conflict has been on the minds of many at the university, after administrators nixed a professor’s announcement of a visit by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who has inspired high-school students around the world to protest for action against climate change.
Just two weeks after Thunberg attended an enormous climate strike in New York City, in late September, she announced she was going to Iowa City to support student protesters there. Michelle M. Scherer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, suggested to colleagues that they advertise the event on the College of Engineering’s official Facebook page. But a member of the college’s marketing team vetoed the idea, arguing that a notice about Thunberg’s visit would violate the university’s policy against promoting political causes.
Scherer disagreed. “Climate change is science,” she said. Moreover, the students in her classes were excited about Thunberg’s visit and engaged in the idea of climate action, so she thought the administration was ignoring their interests. “As an educator, I don’t like that,” she said.
The Gazette, in Cedar Rapids, broke the news, which quickly spread across the campus. Many read it as the latest of several signs that the university had become hypersensitive to offending the state legislature. Several prominent Iowan Republicans either don’t believe human activities cause climate change or believe its net effects will not be harmful.
As youth climate protests have taken off around the world and the state of Iowa has seen three rounds of devastating floods this year, driven in part by climate change, critics of the university’s alleged timidity are struck that its president, Bruce Harreld, has not publicly committed to mitigating climate change since a 2017 announcement that the campus would go coal-free in 2025. The announcement never uses the phrase “climate change.”
Of course, not everyone among the more than a dozen faculty, students, and staff interviewed for this article thinks the administration is reluctant to talk about the issue.
Several administrators disputed the characterization. The university’s interactions with legislators mostly concern appropriations, and climate doesn’t typically come up, Peter Matthes, vice president for external relations and senior adviser to the president, wrote in an email. “The university has never avoided the topic or asked a UI researcher to avoid speaking about the topic for fear of offending a legislator,” he added.
Concerns about how willing the institution is to speak out on the problem, however, reflect what may happen as a public university sees itself losing support, philosophically and financially, from its state government. From 2008 to 2018, Iowa’s state appropriations per full-time student at public universities fell 25 percent, according to an analysis by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
The situation at Iowa, not unique among public universities, raises key questions: What happens when what your legislature wants is at odds with your student body or your faculty? What happens as state universities’ budgets shrink, while the politicization of academic knowledge grows?
Money Worries Prompt a Quiet Climate
As is true across the country, state funding for Iowa’s three public universities has never quite recovered to pre-recession levels. Year by year since 2008, the universities have seen both cuts and increases under Democratic and mixed-control governments. But the Republican Party came out swinging after 2016, slashing budgets two years in a row. In 2018 the state legislature appropriated $41 million — or about 8 percent — less to the state’s three universities’ unrestricted, general funds than they received in 2017. The cuts seem to be leveling off now.
In addition, in 2017, the legislature zeroed out the budgets of two longstanding university research centers addressing climate change: Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. Republican politicians originally proposed eliminating the University of Iowa’s Flood Center as well, before settling on a 20-percent budget cut.
“We saw what happened to the Leopold Center. There are more screws that can be turned tighter,” Erin Irish said, in comments that were typical of many The Chronicle interviewed. Irish is a corn geneticist at the University of Iowa and a UI representative to the Leopold Center’s board. (The center continues to run on charitable donations; its budget is about a tenth of its original size, said Mark A. Rasmussen, its director.)
“I’m sure anybody that’s thinking about how this is going to be perceived in Des Moines is thinking: Let’s stay safely in the lane that does not look like we’re being political,” Irish said.
The fears have even infected students. “I have never been told what to do by central admin, but internally, as student government, we’ve decided an initiative is not worth risking our state funding,” said Noel Mills, president of the Undergraduate Student Government. In 2018, members of the student government handed out fliers encouraging their peers not to eat meat on Mondays, as a climate-protecting measure. The move drew an enormous backlash, with livestock farmers complaining to the state’s Board of Regents, which oversees the university.
The student government backed off. “It might be a stretch to think that that might cause them to vote ‘nay’ on a funding increase, but we weren’t going to risk that,” Mills said. “It would be disrespectful to students put an initiative like that over college affordability.”
Students Drive Climate Action
Longtime employees recall that under a different leader and a mixed legislature in Des Moines, UI took bolder climate positions. On Earth Day 2008 the university’s then president, Sally Mason, called for a campuswide commitment to sustainability, culminating in a set of goals for 2020. Mason retired in 2015, and the institution has met many but not all of those targets. Since then, however, the university’s big moves on climate have all been driven by students, not administrators, said many interviewed for this article.
For example, the university is now working on 2030 climate goals as a direct result of student activity. This past summer, the Undergraduate Student Government introduced a declaration of a climate emergency at an annual Association of Big Ten Students meeting. Iowa’s counterparts at the association’s 13 other institutions, as well as the university’s Graduate and Professional Student Government, all signed on. For some faculty members, that’s just another sign the administration has dropped the ball, leaving students to write their own climate commitment.
The students The Chronicle interviewed, however, seemed satisfied with the response they got to their resolution. “We sent it to the administration. They were very receptive,” Mills said. Rod Lehnertz, the senior vice president for finance and operations, created working groups to tackle the students’ climate demands, including the 2030 goals and the development of a new requirement that all undergraduates take a course in sustainability.
Amina Grant, co-chair for sustainability in the Graduate and Professional Student Government and an engineering doctoral student under Scherer’s supervision, said the administration was initially not receptive to students’ sustainability desires, but responded once leaders saw the unanimous resolution. “I feel like now that they’ve recognized what the students want, they’re moving toward it,” she said. “I’m satisfied in the direction we’re moving now.”
Fear of ‘Climate Change’
As an example of how the university has not avoided climate-change issues, Matthes, Harreld’s adviser, pointed out that scientists across Iowa, including UI, recently presented their annual climate-change statement at the Statehouse. “The university heard no concerns from legislators about the UI’s work on this issue,” he wrote. Jeneane Beck, assistant vice president for external relations, cited news releases about climate-change research by faculty members and plans to make the campus coal-free by 2025.
But the most recent releases rarely use the term “climate change.” For example, the release about coal power does not mention it, although it is tagged so that a search for “climate change” on the university’s website will pull it up. Another release, about a study of sea-level rise during a warm period on Earth 120,000 years ago, doesn’t say that one reason scientists study past climates is to predict what will happen with global warming. As a result, the release makes it sound as if the research has nothing to do with the contentious topic of climate change today.
The university has no rules for how statements, social-media accounts, and other official channels should address controversial subjects, Beck said: “We don’t have topical policies.” Instead, campus policies prohibit using official channels to advocate any policy positions or political candidates.
Beck arranged and sat in on Lehnertz’s interview with The Chronicle, in which he talked at length about the university’s dedication to mitigating global warming. “We, as a university, as a nation, continue to see evidence of changes to the climate that we look to correct at the local level and hopefully inspire people beyond that,” he said.
Some on the campus want President Harreld to make a similar statement, especially after activists in Iowa City, many of them high-school students, began criticizing the university as not moving away from fossil fuels fast enough.
“It’s important that the university makes its values clear and promotes them with a unified message,” said Christian M. Bako, a doctoral student in environmental engineering and Grant’s co-chair of sustainability. “Just a commitment to a better future and an equitable future and one that recognizes that climate change is an existential crisis and prepares its students to address those challenges.”
Priest, the historian, noted that the previous president, Mason, “gave the presidential imprimatur on this.”
Beck said Harreld had made such a statement, citing a short quotation that he gave to Second Nature, a group advocating climate action, in December 2016: “This is the most important issue facing the next generation. The science is clear. Now is the time to act … while we still can.”
That’s too little, too long ago, Scherer said. “If that is considered timely or relevant by our UI administration, then they should sit down and talk with our students more,” she wrote in an email.
‘Business as Usual’
It’s no secret that university administrations often strive to be as politically palatable as they can. “There’s a push among most public institutions to be as apolitical as possible,” said Chris Marsicano, a visiting assistant professor who studies higher-education politics at Davidson College, in North Carolina. “It’s not like concerns about offending one political party or the other are unfounded.”
He pointed to the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors, whose Republican majority decided to close three research centers in 2015. The director of one of the centers had frequently criticized the state’s Republican policies.
At the same time, decisions to defund colleges aren’t always specific attacks. “If you believe in low taxes and low government spending and you’re looking for places to cut, you don’t want to cut in places where the revenue can’t be made up,” Marsicano said, “and so, especially since the Great Recession, state universities have had their budgets cut in part because they can raise revenue through tuition and other ways.”
The Chronicle contacted the chairs of the Iowa House and Senate appropriations committees and the appropriations subcommittees on education, to seek their views on funding higher education. None responded.
David Cwiertny, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa who thinks its administration has been “timid” and “cautious” about climate change, nevertheless called its approach “in some ways business as usual” for a politically contentious issue. The difference is the passion students now bring to the topic, which makes it difficult for the university to quietly placate its funders or to try to continue doing climate work under the radar.
Indeed, although some students and faculty members have pushed the university to do more — for example, to go coal-free now instead of in 2025 — others think UI has done enough but isn’t publicizing its work.
Joe Bolkcom has views from both sides. He is outreach director for the doomed Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, which will lose its state funding in 2022. He is also the top Democrat in the Iowa Senate’s appropriations committee.
Although Bolkcom believes the university is reluctant to talk about climate change — “there’s a little bit of truth to the idea that there’s a duck-and-cover attitude at the University of Iowa on this issue” — he doesn’t think it’s the right strategy. “I would not say that the university’s financial position, vis-à-vis the state legislature, whether they get funded or not, has anything to do with climate change,” he said.
The overall health of the state’s budget, he said, is more pertinent. His advice to the administration? Be loud and proud. “We are going to be in an extraordinary fight for customers at all our colleges and universities in the next decade, in the next five years,” he said. “We ought to make Iowa a place where students want to come to learn about sustainability and how to make our environment work for all of us.”
Correction (12/5/2019, 12:10 p.m.): This article originally misspelled the surname of an Iowa professor. He is David Cwiertny, not Cweirtny. The article has been corrected accordingly.