Sandra Steingraber had one of those ideal academic positions. She was doing interdisciplinary work at Ithaca College on climate justice, one of those important roles that doesn’t fit into a tidy niche. She was good at it!
For the past 18 years, I have served as our campus’ scholar in residence, recruited by a previous provost with a vision for shaping the college into a laboratory for environmental sustainability.
My post has been a joyful one. As a biologist with a master’s degree in poetry, a background in journalism and a national platform in the climate movement, I have represented Ithaca College around the world — in Congressional briefings, at the Paris climate meetings and inside church basements in struggling communities on the frontlines of environmental injustice.
My interdisciplinary scholarship and activism were welcomed on campus, and I flourished, authoring books, editing monographs and collaborating with filmmakers to create narratives that speak truth to power.
In addition to teaching my own class within the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences (ENVS), I serve as a guest speaker across campus. My position thus offers me an extraordinary view of the Ithaca College curriculum.
I have to admire that kind of work. I’m in easy mode, in some ways: I teach canonical biology, the kinds of courses every university has to offer if they issue biology degrees, so I fit neatly into a pre-defined slot (it’s a competitive slot, though, which means it’s hard to find that position without a hundred other people fighting for it). Steingraber had to carve out her role from multiple disciplines, and also serve multiple disciplines. That’s not easy, especially since the Powers That Be — provosts seem to mostly be business people and doctors — typically lack any knowledge of what’s going on at the ground level, and don’t understand how the glue that ties together the components of an education can be just as important as the familiar scholarly groupings.
Steingraber’s position doesn’t seem to have been at risk, though. She was putting together a Center for Climate Justice, which would be quite a feather in the cap of the Powers That Be, since they love bragging to donors about Centers with fancy names. She even had a grant award to help pay for it all. But the university just had to go and do something stupid and short-sighted.
Last year, encouraged by Provost Cornish, I sought funding to launch a Center for Climate Justice at Ithaca College. My idea was to create a national destination for students seeking engagement with the climate crisis that would equip them with tools to envision a renewable future, and make it so.
To that end, I joined fellow faculty and staff serving on IC’s Climate Action Group. This committee worked for the better part of last year, drafting recommendations and helping to shape my own ambitious proposal.
The good news: after a year of planning and writing, I got the grant.
The bad news: both faculty co-chairs of the Climate Action Group are now among those losing their jobs as a consequence of Academic Program Prioritization, which, as far as I can see, is disaster capitalism for higher education.
All told, at least nine IC professors who teach some aspect of the climate crisis — in five different departments — are on the chopping block, with Recreation and Leisure Studies disappearing altogether.
Here’s the thing: When an administration decides that the most important task is aligning the size of the faculty to the correct proportion and does so by eliminating non-tenure track faculty, unique, irreplaceable areas of expertise are lost.
It’s our contingent and NTEN faculty who are engaged in some of the most innovative, intersectional, progressive teaching on campus. I know because I’ve literally taught across our curriculum for 18 years.
They cut the foundation she needed for such a goal! They looked at the whole university, saw the things they liked and wanted to keep, and figured all the stuff outside of that was disposable and chopped it, unaware of how university programs are interdependent. Imagine what it would be like if administrators looked at my university, saw that biology brings in lots of tuition money and leads to what they think are obvious money-making careers, and decided that Art didn’t contribute to that, or the Humanities, and hey, aren’t the Social Sciences all fake anyway? And then they decided to double the funding for lab courses and pay for it by firing half of the “useless” faculty. I would hope all the science faculty would reject such a ludicrous idea. Our students are here to learn how to think and begin to take on the breadth of human understanding, they are not here to get trained as a lab tech. I teach a narrow slice of the domain of knowledge, and I rely on my colleagues to teach all the rest. I sure can’t do it.
So Steingraber looked at the direction the college was taking, refused her grant award, and resigned.
Wow. That’s courage. I salute you, Sandra Steingraber, and I hope you land a new position where your talents will be appreciated.
On the other hand, it was only a small sacrifice.
I’ll be leaving Ithaca College at the end of this year. I am sorry. I wanted to build a thriving Center for Climate Justice here, but I’m demoralized and aware that the collective intellectual capacity I was counting on is being sacrificed to austerity.
Finally, and because I believe in transparency: my salary is $31,050.
I am horrified, but not surprised. Universities are run by people who like to count beans, and see the faculty, the major expense they have, as the best place to chisel out lots of beans.
I kind of hope that she had a half-time position, because that salary is ridiculously low. Only kind of, though, because if they’re throwing that much responsibility on a part-time position, that tells you how little they prioritized her job.