Staff Columnist

University of Iowa cool to climate change activists

In defense of Greta Thunberg ... and Charlie Kirk

The Old Capitol stands at the end of Iowa Avenue as a crowd fills the intersection with Dubuque Street while waiting to rally with Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg rallies in downtown Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. The student-led movement has resulted in the Iowa City school board and the City of Iowa City each passing a climate resolution. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Old Capitol stands at the end of Iowa Avenue as a crowd fills the intersection with Dubuque Street while waiting to rally with Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg rallies in downtown Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. The student-led movement has resulted in the Iowa City school board and the City of Iowa City each passing a climate resolution. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

International climate change activist Greta Thunberg drew thousands of people to a gathering in Iowa City last weekend.

Evidently, people didn’t have trouble finding the event, even though University of Iowa leaders instructed staff not to promote it on official social media channels.

UI Professor Michelle Scherer requested to post event details on the UI Civil and Environmental Engineering Facebook page, The Gazette’s Vanessa Miller reported. Her request was turned down by the university’s public relations staff, citing “political activity” rules.

“We cannot use our channels to publicize or promote policy change,” Jason Kosovski, director of marketing and communications in the Engineering College, wrote in an email last week. “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.”

That was a missed opportunity, Thunberg’s backers said afterward.

“Students are interested in this,” Scherer told The Gazette. “This is an educational opportunity, and as an educator I feel the university could have engaged more.”

There are two obvious problems with the UI’s decision to block promotion of the Thunberg event — it was not explicitly political, and the university often hosts events centered on politics and policy.

To be clear, I am neither a Thunberg fan nor a detractor. I think climate change is real and I admire all young people who take an interest in social and political issues, but I’m skeptical of the most alarmist voices in the discussion.

Thunberg visited Iowa City to join local students’ preexisting anti-climate change efforts. They are high school students engaged in grassroots advocacy, not a formal political action committee or a partisan organization.

At the rally last week, young activists called on the UI to act more quickly in reducing its use of fossil fuels. Obviously, that is not a topic an institute for higher learning should shy away from. To the contrary, the university should be encouraging its faculty and students to engage in the conversation.

According to the institution’s policies, the university’s name can’t be used to promote anything “not previously sanctioned by the Office of Strategic Communication.”

But events and programs officially sanctioned by the university and its student organizations sometimes include overtly political projects. As one timely example, conservative organizer Charlie Kirk will visit campus later this month on his “Culture War” tour, hosted by the local chapter of Turning Point USA.

Kirk is the leader of Turning Point USA, which organizes high school and college students in support of conservative causes. He is a prominent and vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, and Trump’s son Donald Jr. is scheduled to attend some of the tour events.

Kirk’s campus visits often elicit hostile resistance from leftists on campus, and some of his previous events have been canceled following threats of violence.

Conservative activists at the UI have the right to invite speakers, even controversial ones. Just the same, UI staff and faculty ought to be empowered to promote pertinent events to their students, even ones with a political undertone. We need free speech on campus, for everyone, all the time.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9: A previous version of this column did not make clear that the Charlie Kirk event is hosted by a student organization, not a university department.

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