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Poskanzer refuses to sign climate letter

<ke of the November election and the politicization of climate change during the campaign season, the non-profit organization Second Nature wrote a letter directed to the new members of Congress and President Donald Trump’s transition team stressing the importance of recognizing climate change as a scientific, global danger.

The letter was signed by over 230 presidents from colleges and universities around the country. Recently, Carleton declined to sign the letter.

Among institutions that signed are fellow liberal arts institutions, such as Oberlin, Williams and Pomona, and other Minnesota colleges, such as Macalester and Augsburg.

Environmental studies professor Kim Smith received the letter because it was circulating around different colleges between Tuesday, Dec. 19 and Inauguration Day, when it was sent to governmental leaders in Washington, D.C.

A few weeks ago, Smith sent the letter to President Steve Poskanzer to sign. “A letter signed by a bunch of college presidents, I think, might carry more weight [than other petitions].

“It would be a little bit like a similar statement on climate change signed by a bunch of Fortune 500 companies. It shows particular Congressional representatives that there is a significant support for this from a socially significant, socially powerful bunch of actors,” said Smith.

Gaining support from several other faculty members, who did not wish to comment for this article, “we said that we thought it would be appropriate and consistent with [Carleton’s] mission statement and he declined,” said Smith. “His general approach is the college does not take a public stand on general policy matters.”

The letter called for our federal government to take “aggressive climate action” by supporting three main proposals to fight climate change.

To begin, the petition stressed the importance of continued participation in the Paris Agreement, “with the resulting national carbon reduction and clean energy targets, to protect the health of our current communities and our future generations.”

Secondly, the letter emphasized the need for research from both academia and the government, “to ensure that our national climate, energy, and security policies are based on leading scientific and technical knowledge.”

The third item called for “investments in low carbon economy as a part of a resilient infrastructure to ensure the country can adapt to changing climate hazards.”

When asked about his decision to not sign the letter, President Poskanzer explained in a statement that many colleges and universities like Carleton choose “to be somewhat independent from day-to-day political, economic and social currents and controversies.”

In the statement, he stressed the importance of academic freedom, without an institutional political agenda, when creating an environment for faculty to develop new ideas and students to discover their own capabilities.

“Equipped with such ideas and knowledge, we then want members of the community to plunge boldly and passionately as individuals into these wider currents, exercising their knowledge in conjunction with their free speech rights.

“But as an institution, we have a long history of not taking positions on issues that are not clearly academic and that do not directly pertain to and advance the college’s core educational mission,” said Poskanzer.

According to Smith, the president outlined this policy during a faculty meeting, as he has received several similar petitions in wake of the presidential election.

The only exception to president Poskanzer’s policy occurs when the political issue in question centers around a topic with special relevance to Carleton.

“One such example is the educational value of diversity in college admissions, which is why Carleton has signed amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court supporting affirmative action.  A second—and more recent—example was a letter I signed affirming the educational value of the DACA program to enrolled students and their home institutions,” he said in his statement.   

Smith thought this letter, especially in calling for the protection of environmental collegiate research, may have been central enough to Carleton’s work that the president would sign.

“I thought it was worth asking the president to take a stand because part of climate politics has been attacks on academic freedom and because climate scientists work has been mischaracterized. Some of them, I think, have been libeled, and certainly, people have opposed taking action on climate change and have tried to defund research on that,” said Smith.

However, Poskanzer said, “Since the letter wasn’t fundamentally about wise educational policy or directly related to core aspects of Carleton’s educational mission, I did not believe it was appropriate to commit the college as a signatory to this particular group letter.”

After hearing the president’s decision, Smith still hopes local colleges can come together to voice their concerns about climate change, particularly to communicate this issue to the district’s new representative, Jason Lewis.

“I thought it might be useful for [Lewis] to know that college presidents in his own district are concerned about climate change and that this is kind of where they stand,” said Smith.

“I thought it was an opportunity to send a signal to him. He’s a new representative, so his agenda and his commitments may be open to being influenced, and it might be a good opportunity to say something.”

Smith has never forwarded a letter to the president before, but the current political climate inspired her to take more action. From her work as an historian who has studied past tumultuous times, she wonders how the future generations will view this moment in their history classes.

“I am also looking forward to the future, and I want to see how people in the future are going to interpret this moment. To me, it makes a lot of difference.

“I think it’s going to affect how we explain who we are and the story we tell ourselves to be American.

“So I think it’s important at this moment just to register dissent. Just to express what we value and let future generations know that a lot of the values that were expressed in the Trump campaign were not signed onto by a lot of Americans.”

Smith urges all community members to find a way to take action if they want to get involved in the fight against climate change, however they are comfortable. “There are many futures that could unfold here, and I am trying to choose the future that I prefer.”

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