Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 12, 2018

Our commercially centered, scientifically shackled colleges and universities

There was a time, prior to about 1950, when our institutions of higher education focused on the academic disciplines they represented – with minimal or at least secondary consideration of the effects their work might have on the myriad commercial interests of the industrial world and the military needs of our armed forced. Then, starting with WWII and the Cold War that followed, our federal government began to provide increased funding to our universities for undertaking research, especially in the sciences, related to national defense. Then, following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, our universities found that they needed another source of funding and found it in our then prosperous industrial sectors. Presently at age 74, I personally witnessed some of these changes at all of the educational institutions I studied and worked at, including St. Olaf College of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Washington State University, Pullman, and Montana State University, Bozeman.

As a direct result of these changes, our colleges and universities are now largely directed and controlled by Boards of Regents, headed by the presidents and administrative staff of those schools along with a group of appointed individuals selected largely from the business communities of their region. As the costs of higher education (tuition, room, board and special programs) have increased enormously in recent decades, the role of the Boards of Regents for raising needed funding has proportionally increased. Without those funds raised by the Boards of Regents and their associated fund-raising networks, the extensive programs now commonly offered to potential students would not be possible. Therefore, it is not surprising that the controlling entity on the campuses as they exist today are the Boards of Reagents who raise the funds for the programs they have created.

There was a time when one could seek the thoughts and advice on any issues of interest from individual scientists or administers at colleges and universities. Today, that task is not so easily accomplished. Both the faculty and administrators are now hesitant to interact with the general public for fear that such communications might go against the “brand” that the Boards and Presidents are trying to sell to potential donors – many of whom come from the wealthiest sectors of our economy. Therefore, even though I am a graduate of St. Olaf College (class of 1966) who became an accomplished scientist in the field of atmospheric chemistry during my subsequent career, I have found it very difficult to interact with all levels of personnel at St. Olaf College on the subject of anthropogenic global warming. They and the economic forces they are tied to don’t what to hear about it. Too much action along those lines could be harmful to the businesses of their donors.

If you would like to see an example of this, scan the list of posts I have placed on this web site over the last three years. About a half dozen of them concern my attempt to engage the administration and Board of Regents of St. Olaf on the subject of man-caused global warming. Specifically, I have suggested that they should play a greater leadership role in this area – by example, as well as by their communications. But throughout my extended, but largely one-way dialog with the President, the Environmental Faculty, and the Board of St. Olaf. I have received exceedingly little feedback – even though I have repeatedly offered to meet with their environmental science departments. I was allowed an interaction with a small group of St. Olaf students about two years ago, but that interaction was unfortunately terminated by the faculty member in charge at the very moment I invited questions and interactions with the students. (That faculty member “explained” to me that the students – apparently all of them – needed to get back to their dorms at that moment in order to study???)

Both the faculty and administration of St. Olaf appear to be under the controlling influence of the Board and do not feel free to express their own opinions concerning the greatest issue of our times. Their only comments on this topic are of the “greenwashing” type, heavy on talk and light on meaningful action (note that the wind mill on its campus does not justify a “free pass” for St. Olaf from participation in all of the other more painful actions that need to be taken by all of us in order to eliminate green house gas emissions).

What a great shame all this is. Institutions that should provide society with intellectual leadership, instead are relatively mute on this difficult issue and provide poor examples of what must be done going forward. As one of America’s leading intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, explained in his address at St. Olaf College last May, unfortunate behaviors such as those we now see at St. Olaf College are the result of the business models that have been widely adopted by college and universities in recent decades. In this way, our colleges and universities have essentially sold their souls to the business-as-usual forces of America. While our institutions of higher education still claim to be centers of intellectual excellence in their lavish promotional literature, in fact, they no longer are. Instead they have morphed into businesses in which their actions are determined primarily by their financial “bottom line”.

So, for example, should St. Olaf College divest itself from fossil fuel industries? “Never”, its President has told me. While that and other actions are now clearly warranted at St. Olaf, some of those actions might go against the “business model” it is now a captive of. For extended discussions of this institutional disease, perhaps President Anderson and his Board should invite Noam Chomsky back again this year.


  1. St. Olaf is merely symbolic. A major influence on my life but a small spot in the universe. You might want to consult China where energy needs are growing and coal consumption has increased. We are screwed. Enjoy your day.

    • Dave. I use St. Olaf College as an example of a supposedly conscientious, informed representative of our culture. And to show that if this represents our best hope for responding to climate change – God Help Us. We need to get both St. Olaf and the world, including China, to understand that they must do much, much better. Eric

  2. Eric, this reference link contains a study recently completed from your (and my) alma mater, not St Olaf, rather the U of Wisconsin. It is about as precise a prediction as can be made regarding the climate trajectory over the short and long term under two scenarios of human intervention. (One of them is no intervention at all; our current default.) Sobering but with a somewhat optimistic bent if you don’t find mass extinctions objectionable
    The article is entitled “Back to the Pliocene”. (Copy and paste the entire link).

  3. Thanks Mike for your comment and reference to that most interesting article. Indeed, it does appear that we might be in for more than mere climate change and headed backwards towards a previous geological epoch.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: