IOWA CITY — In the news that teenage globe-trotting climate activist Greta Thunberg — fresh off her viral admonishment last week before the United Nations — is participating today in an Iowa City protest, a University of Iowa environmental sciences professor saw opportunity.
“If we haven’t already, I’d like to suggest we put Greta’s visit up on (Civil and Environmental Engineering) Facebook,” UI professor Michelle Scherer suggested Thursday to colleagues in the UI College of Engineering, according to emails provided to The Gazette.
Scherer, a civil and environmental engineering professor who serves as associate director of a National Science Foundation Sustainable Water Development Graduate Program, suggested the UI also share information about the Swedish teen’s Iowa visit via its College of Engineering and IIHR — Hydroscience & Engineering outlets.
But a college communications and marketing team member shot down that suggestion, citing the university’s “political activity” guidelines and policy.
“We cannot use our channels to publicize or promote policy change,” replied Jason Kosovski, director of marketing and communications in the Engineering College. “We are always free to publicize our research, even if it has policy impacts, but Greta’s visit does not fit under the umbrella of university research.”
He stressed faculty and staff not use college, center, or department channels to promote Thunberg’s visit.
“I have consulted with UI Government Relations, and they have emphasized that this event does not fall within the scope of something we can promote,” Kosovski wrote.
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Scherer questioned that response to another member of the UI communications team, requesting confirmation.
“Is this correct? Boy, we are missing an amazing opportunity here,” she wrote. “It is all the students (undergrad and grad) are talking about. If there is any wiggle room to reconsider our stance on this, I’d love to make a pitch to someone to do so.”
UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett responded to Scherer by providing a link to the pertinent policies — namely political expression and political activity guidelines for faculty and staff.
Those policies prohibit “the use of the university name for any purpose in any non-university endeavor not previously sanctioned by the Office of Strategic Communication.”
Faculty and staff can use their UI titles to identify themselves, but not in situations where UI endorsement can be inferred.
Scherer told The Gazette said she could have rejected the communications advise and “gone ahead and put it up” — arguing Thunberg’s visit is apolitical and relevant to important environmental work underway across campus.
And that’s where she’d like to steer the conversation now, Scherer said Friday after listening to Thunberg speak.
“Students are interested in this,” she said. “This is an educational opportunity, and as an educator I feel the university could have engaged more.”
The 16-year-old Thunberg made international news last week when she took a sharp tone in addressing the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York. Her admonishment has made her a lightning rod for criticism and controversy, with climate-change deniers flinging a wide array of insults.
Earlier this week, Thunberg announced plans to join Iowa City youth and UI students in a strike “to save the planet” from noon to 4 p.m. in and around downtown Iowa City — an event that attracted thousands. Speakers, in promoting the event, planned to “demand action of our leaders to support the Green New Deal and a commitment to protecting the environment.”
The Green New Deal is proposed legislation with the stated aim to address climate change and economic inequality.
‘Apolitical, fact-based science’
The City of Iowa City, area high schools, UI Student Government, and UI Graduate Student Government all have passed climate-related declarations and resolutions announcing commitment to address the global climate crisis at a local level.
UI Student Government representatives led their Big Ten colleagues over the summer in passing a collective resolution declaring a climate emergency.
“Higher education must confront these threats and take action to address social and ecological disruption and address its contribution to the catastrophic loss of the planet’s biodiversity and worsening effects of climate change by leaving a generation unprepared for ecological and social crises ahead,” according to the Big Ten undergraduate resolution passed at the annual Association of Big Ten Students Summer Conference.
Among other things, it demanded administrative, city, and state support in effectuating change.
And Blake Rupe, sustainability program manager of the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment, told The Gazette on Friday that Thunberg’s visit presented “a fantastic opportunity for university leadership to promote the work being done, as well as the effort and passion that faculty, staff, and students have about sustainability on this campus.”
“Greta is a young woman that students admire, reiterating the apolitical, fact-based science of climate change and the danger of inaction on an issue that is causing catastrophic damage to the future of life on Earth,” Rupe said.
UI President Bruce Harreld has promoted his campus’ goal of going coal-free by 2025, boasting of achievements in getting there by expanding its portfolio of locally-sourced biomass — including through partnerships with area farmers growing a miscanthus energy crop.
But UI professor Scherer told The Gazette that work needs to happen faster.
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“That’s six years away,” she said. “That’s too slow. It’s way too conservative.”
Scherer also voiced concern over a UI inquiry into privatizing its utilities operation by partnering with an outside firm — which would pay the university a hefty upfront sum to land a 50-year operations contract. Under the proposed deal, UI would maintain ownership of its utilities system and put the lump sum into an endowment — from which it could pull revenue annually.
But Scherer worries UI could lose control over its fuel-sourcing decisions and other efficiency levers.
“There are lots of things we need to do to really stop emissions,” she said, urging “no more coal. It’s not a big lift.”
Thunberg’s visit, Scherer said, is exactly the type of educational opportunity UI faculty, students, and staff should be using to compel dialogue about climate change, student concerns, and campus action.
“Does the University of Iowa (administration) believe in climate change?” she asked. “If they do, it’s time to start acting more aggressively.”
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