Several faculty members from Yale and elsewhere spoke about the role of universities and academic expertise in the current political climate as part of a Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate-hosted panel on Thursday.
The panel’s six Yale speakers, five of whom — Beverly Gage ’94, William Nordhaus ’63 GRD ’73, Vesla Weaver, Trude Storelvmo and Kathryn Lofton — are FAS senators, represented fields of study including history, economics, climate science and religious studies. Irene Mulvey, a mathematics professor at Fairfield University, spoke on behalf of the American Association of University Professors.
Approximately 60 faculty members attended the public meeting in Kline Geology Laboratory, and faculty members told the News after the meeting that it was a productive first step in interdisciplinary collaboration.
“Initially, we conceived of the panel as an opportunity to hear, severally, from individual experts, on the role of the University in the current political climate, which we did,” FAS Senate Chair Emily Greenwood said. “We also asked panelists to offer commentary on salient themes, speaking from their disciplinary expertise. I enjoyed and learned from each of the presentations, which were powerful and succinct.”
Greenwood said in her introduction that the idea for the panel originated at the Senate’s first meeting following November’s presidential election, where Senate faculty discussed President Donald Trump’s “assault on knowledge” and dismissal of academic research, which they saw as a “direct challenge to the very foundation and idea of a university.” In pondering its role as the University’s representative faculty body, the Senate decided to use its own academic expertise in a panel and open discussion.
Each panelist spoke for five minutes on a topic within his or her field. History professor Gage discussed the historical parallels of Trump’s “assault … on basic intellectual values,” such as anti-intellectualism in the 1950s. Gage also spoke about populism and the perceived attack on “elite knowledge systems” like Yale. She encouraged faculty to speak out about why principles like truth matter in broader American life and to consider the role of the University as an elite institution grounded on these principles.
“It’s worth having a pretty serious conversation about what it means to be an elite university, a university self-consciously producing a kind of elite in the country,” Gage said. “I think that there is a real urgency to thinking through the kind of a role that a university like this wants to play within broader society, [or] more overtly to have an answer when political attacks come aimed at the kind of concentrated wealth and social production of elites that are part of what this University is about, because I think those attacks are coming.”
Storelvmo, a geology and geophysics professor, spoke of her work in climate science research, citing “broad agreement” that global warming is caused by human activity and criticizing Trump’s dismissal of this fact. She said the best way to respond to the argument that “the science is settled” — meaning that climate science work should focus on mitigating its effects rather than investigating its nuances — is to show that the University takes climate science and scientific expertise seriously in the face of lingering unknowns about greenhouse gas concentrations and climate sensitivity.
Storelvmo also said the shutting down of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute last year signaled to the broader scientific community that the University does not prioritize this issue, and she said the University should take a stronger leadership role in this field. She said there is high interest among students, with 90 students shopping her 20-person seminar on global warming this year.
Nordhaus, an economics professor and former provost of the University, discussed the proposed economic policies of Trump’s administration and his protectionist attitude towards trade in particular. He said the idea that trade is mutually beneficial is an established concept and used the example of the iPhone, which is made in approximately 30 different countries. Because of globalization and the decline of transportation and communication costs, tearing up trade deals would mean disrupting the assembly line, Nordhaus said.
“I hope that one of the ‘very scary things’ [Trump] learned [after taking office] is that his view of trade is highly outdated and the U.S. is highly dependent on other countries,” Nordhaus said. “Cooperation is very difficult; it requires a lot of grit, patience and brains. It’s a very important legacy of the last eight decades, and we need to protect it.”
History professor Jennifer Klein, who specializes in labor politics and policy, encouraged attendees to think about how faculty can help the University better understand itself as an elite institution entangled in “the current oligarchy.”
Klein talked about Yale New Haven Hospital and how it has undermined potential unionization of its employees, highlighting the University’s complicity. She added that its role as an economic enterprise will become more important as the federal government rolls back labor protections.
In an open discussion following the panel, several faculty members spoke of the University’s role in preparing the next generation. Psychology professor and FAS Senate member Karen Wynn spoke of her own conversations with students, which suggested to her that the University should work to expose students to a wider variety of viewpoints in order to teach them to better defend their values.
“I saw the meeting as the start of a very productive conversation across disciplines at Yale,” history of science professor Bill Rankin told the News after the discussion. “Especially at a time when academic expertise of all kinds is being questioned — in the sciences and the humanities alike — I think it’s crucial that we learn to see the world through other disciplines’ eyes and look across campus for allies.”
Rankin added that faculty must be “proactive and savvy” in making their voices heard, necessitating collaboration between professors in the sciences and humanities.
Greenwood said that going forward, faculty can take part in more cross-disciplinary and cross-divisional panels and use videos to make these conversations accessible for audiences at and beyond Yale. She added that she enjoyed the panelists’ combined commentary, which embodied the purpose and intellectual value of universities in general. Greenwood said democratic political theory emphasizes talking to strangers, and following the presidential election, there is a renewed focus on collaborating across divides.
“The experience of listening to a broad cross-disciplinary faculty panel is an education in the life of the University,” Greenwood said. “I had my views enlarged and challenged in more dramatic ways than typically happen when I only talk to colleagues who share certain disciplinary norms and assumptions. My impression was that several other faculty [members] who were present had the same response.”