Alternative right-wing news sources were abuzz last week condemning three professors at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who forbid classroom debate about the existence of man-made climate change. Though the instructors’ actions have drawn plenty of scorn from conservative media, most mainstream sources — and the university itself — have all but ignored them. But in the lead-up to the CU Board of Regents election, comments on the controversy from one regent highlight the climate change skepticism that exists on the board.
Professors Wendy Haggren, Rebecca Laroche and Eileen Skahill each teach a section of an online course called Medical Humanities in the Digital Age. Late last week, they sent out a classwide email in response to inquiries from multiple students expressing concern that the course wouldn’t be addressing “both sides” of the climate change “debate.”
The email gave several guidelines for the course, including that it accepts the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is both valid and occurring. The professors said that the “other side” of climate change — that it is not happening, or is not human-caused — would be neither taught nor discussed, including in online class forums. They asked that all outside sources used for the course be peer-reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“If you believe this premise to be an issue for you,” their email concluded, “We respectfully ask that you do not take this course.” The course is an elective for which UCCS offers both online and in-person alternatives this year.
UCCS seemed unfazed by the faculty’s actions. Spokesman Tom Hutton told KKTV News that the professors were simply being straightforward about the topics covered in the course, “No differently than a math professor would say, ‘This class is about algebra; we’re not going to talk about geometry.’”
But conservative media didn’t see it that way. Breitbart News, for example, called the professors’ decision a ban on “free inquiry,” an unfortunate silencing of “inquisitive students who would like to discuss the issue rather than blindly accepting the global warming dogma.”
University of Colorado President Bruce Benson also wanted more “balance” from the professors. In an email The Colorado Independent obtained last week, Benson wrote to the regents about the email controversy.
“I talked with Pam [Shockley-Zalabak, Chancellor of UCCS] about a variety of issues on her campus, including the faculty syllabus that has caused a stir recently,” he said. “I am not happy about it and I shared that with Pam. While the issue falls squarely in the realm of academic freedom, it also seems that a little more balance would have helped.”
CU Regent John Carson, a Republican, went further. “Students deserve more respect than this,” he told the conservative Washington Times in an interview. “They come to the university to be educated, not indoctrinated.”
Carson called the prohibition of debate and dialogue on “a particular public policy issue” — meaning climate change — “alarming.”
“Certainly the climate changes, but I think the real issue is how much does man’s activity on Earth contribute to climate change” he said, adding that he’s “not a scientist.”
Carson isn’t the only one to take issue with prevailing science. Neither he nor regents Susan Sharkey and Steve Bosley have publicly confirmed an acceptance of human-caused climate change.
“I’m not in a position to say that we have a problem with our climate,” said Sharkey at a board of regents meeting in April 2015. She told The Independent via email that she personally believes “there are likely many causes of climate change and that ongoing research is important to address what it undoubtedly a multitude of contributing causes.”
In July, Bosley told The Independent he was skeptical of evidence supporting man-made climate change, noting that some medical doctors in the 1950’s didn’t think smoking was unhealthy.
Bosley is term-limited this year, and Republican Heidi Ganahl and Democrat Alice Madden are fighting for his at-large seat. The hotly contested race could tip the balance of power of the 5-4 Republican majority board for the first time since 1979.
Madden thinks it’s imperative that the regents of a top scientific research university accept prevailing climate science. Ganahl says it’s irrelevant. On her website, she says in a video, “This election for CU regent shouldn’t be about climate change. We can leave that topic to the scientists.” In a phone call, Ganahl said she believes humans contribute to climate change, but isn’t sure how much.
Regents don’t tend to get involved in academic affairs. They can’t, for example, prohibit faculty from researching climate change or from publishing that research. But regent Linda Shoemaker, a Democrat, says having climate deniers on the board is problematic in other ways.
Shoemaker says she’s “appalled” at the recent research on fracking that has come out of the CU Boulder Leeds School of Business, which was funded by the oil and gas industry. “If Democrats gain control, I will call for an end to that kind of pseudo-research,” she said. She also says climate change denial on the board keeps important environmental research from getting the kind of publicity it deserves.
One of the most widely discussed aspects of the regents’ work in recent years has centered around the topic of divestment from fossil fuels. CU can’t actually make direct investments, but has a portfolio of mutual funds, some of which contain investments in fossil fuel companies.
Students across the state have pushed for an end to these investments for years. Earlier this year, CU Boulder student group Fossil Free CU urged students to elect Democratic regents in order to make divestment a priority. Neither Ganahl nor Madden support the policy.
The regents also will be tasked with selecting President Benson’s successor when he leaves office. Whether or not the Democrats take control of the board will likely affect when Benson, a former oil man, decides to step down.
Sharkey said UCCS Chancellor Shockley-Zalabak has assured the regents that students in the course will be graded solely on the merits of their work, not on their beliefs. Regent Carson has requested that the board discuss the matter of the email at the regents meeting in Colorado Springs today. It’s unclear what, if any, further steps they might consider or pursue.
Photo credit: Kevin Gill, Creative Commons, Flickr