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AMES — Before Iowa’s Board of Regents on Wednesday gave the go-ahead for Iowa State University to launch a new bachelor of science in climate science degree this fall, regent Nancy Boettger warned administrators to keep “freedom of speech” in mind.
“Climate change is a very politically charged topic,” said Boettger, chairwoman of the board’s Academic Affairs Committee. “My concern is with freedom of speech. … My main concern is that we go the extra mile to protect freedom of speech or opinions that differ on this politically charged topic.”
Over her years in public service — having served as a Republican state senator from Harlan in western Iowa from 1995 to 2015 — Boettger said she received climate change materials and books she plans to share with ISU in its pursuit to teach on climate change. The materials, she said, aren’t “dog-eared.”
“I haven't studied them a lot,” she said. “But it's all research … with probably the non-PC opinions. Opinions, but it's documented research.”
In response, ISU Associate Provost for Academic Programs Ann Marie VanDerZanden said, “That certainly is something that we have talked about and considered.”
“We understand the political nature that some people do view climate change through,” she said. “Certainly, as a research institution, our faculty and our staff that will be involved in that will be bringing forward the most current research as it relates to climate, climate change, climate science and the intricacies of all the different systems that are involved.”
The board eventually unanimously approved the new major.
Faculty from Iowa State’s Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences proposed the new undergraduate major to meet growing climate change-related challenges — including financial costs associated with extreme events like flooding, droughts, heat waves and crop failures.
“The need to provide a well-trained, adaptable workforce to address these challenges is urgent,” according to ISU’s proposal for the new major. “Climate change is currently impacting global environmental and ecological systems, agricultural systems and food security, human health, water availability, human migrations and economic systems.
“Furthermore, future climate change is projected to increase and worsen these impacts.”
Students who earn an ISU degree in climate science will gain a solid understanding of “how the climate system works, will be knowledgeable about climate impacts on society and relevant sustainability and mitigation options, and will be competent with data analysis and science communication.”
The degree will require 35 to 36 credits, touching on subjects like natural science, math, statistics and social sciences, along with specialties like advanced climate science, planning for sustainability, and climate, food, agriculture and biodiversity.
Among additional academic objectives, the major aims to give graduates the skills to:
- Think critically about the range of climate information, data, and literature coming from a variety of sources.
- Understand societal concerns related to climate change to develop and promote practical and applied research within the climate change research community.
- Use systems-thinking approaches to better understand and solve climate change issues.
Iowa State, according to its proposal, is set up well to offer this new major — given existing expertise and resources in its Geological and Atmospheric Sciences department, including its faculty.
“Faculty at ISU have long participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with their efforts highlighted by their inclusion in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize; panels of the National Academies of Science and Engineering focused on climate change; and U.S. National Climate Assessments,” according to the ISU proposal.
Iowa State exhibited student demand by highlighting positive feedback about the proposal from several student climate change and environmental groups on campus and by pointing out emerging climate science majors on other campuses like the University of California Los Angeles and Berkeley and the University of Nebraska.
Considering student demand for existing ISU classes like “climate and society” and “introduction to weather and climate,” the campus anticipates “good enrollment in this major” — from 25 in the first year to 120 by year five of the program.
Regent Boettger’s concerns Wednesday echo those Republican lawmakers have aired in recent years — and addressed by bringing university presidents to Capitol Hill — following several instances of free speech suppression, specifically of conservative ideas.
At Iowa State in fall 2020, an assistant teaching professor included in her English 250 syllabus a “Giant Warning” against intentional “othering” like racism, sexism or homophobia. Threatening her students with possible dismissal, the professor barred them from pursuing any topic “that takes at its base that one side doesn't deserve the same basic human rights as you do (i.e., no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.).”
After the syllabus captured the attention of lawmakers, Iowa State issued a statement affirming its commitment to free speech and agreeing the syllabus in question didn’t comply with its policies or values.
Although the professor was reprimanded, she wasn’t terminated. She also had to revise her syllabus and Iowa State that fall adopted a free-expression syllabus statement required “verbatim” for all courses.
It reads: “Students will not be penalized for the content or viewpoints of their speech as long as student expression in a class context is germane to the subject matter of the class and conveyed in an appropriate manner.”
Following incidents of free-speech suppression at the University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa as well, the regents adopted new free speech policies and training affecting its entire system.
Iowa State’s VanDerZanden on Wednesday reminded the board of Iowa State’s syllabus mandate — as it moves forward with the new climate science major.
“We've added that as required component to our syllabus statement, and we'll be sharing that we include that as a reminder as we move into this space,” she said. “So all of our faculty will have that top of mind as they begin teaching these course areas.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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