Politics Blog

WWU activists: Senator’s climate skepticism ‘undermining credibility’ of their degrees

A student group seeking to have state Sen. Doug Ericksen’s Western Washington University degree revoked issued a response to The Bellingham Herald after WWU President Bruce Shepard defended Ericksen.

The students remain entrenched in their position against Ericksen, who graduated in 1995 with a master’s degree in political science and environmental policy. As a senator who chairs the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has been a critic and opponent of Democrats’ carbon reduction policies, and one of the most visible climate skeptics in the state Legislature.

In response to the students’ push to have the administration strip Ericksen of his degree, Shepard issued a statement late Friday, May 8, supportive of Ericksen as a “friend to Western,” and questioning the students’ understanding of intellectual freedom in academia.

In a statement to the Herald on Tuesday, May 12, students Emily Krieger, Evelyn Kennedy and Chiara D’Angelo countered that Western’s academic reputation was at stake:

We hope to clarify the purpose of our campaign.

Our intent is to draw awareness to environmental justice and climate science as they relate to our education. As students of Western Washington University (WWU), we are greatly appreciative of the education that we have received at this University, and have been sorely disappointed and concerned that a public figure would use his credentials of being a WWU graduate to legitimize unscientific misinformation on climate change and block meaningful climate legislation.

Sen. Doug Ericksen is welcome to have whatever political views he wants, but by misinforming the public on the science of climate change, he is undermining the credibility of our own degrees and reflecting poorly on the caliber of education students receive here.

We also are concerned this statement from Bruce Shepard aligns the university with an effort to intentionally undermine public education on science. The issue is not Doug Ericksen’s political beliefs, but the scientific reality of climate change. If the University’s faculty were to pursue research that similarly misrepresented the scientific consensus and miseducated the public, our credibility would be diminished in the academic literature. The same is true of Sen. Ericksen’s campaign of “agnosticism” that undermines scientific understanding. The aim of the conversation we’re fostering is to benefit the student body by providing a platform where students can educate themselves on legislative issues and find ways to get involved in our local and state political systems.

WWU prides itself on being an environmentally conscious university, which provides students with an exceptional and unique understanding of environmental issues. Our intent is to preserve this reputation for the University by holding accountable our alumni who are representative of our education.​

Krieger said the students did not deliver this message to Shepard but rather intended to meet with him in person.

Here is Shepard’s statement from Friday, in full:

“We appreciate the good work of Senator Doug Ericksen on behalf of Western Washington University. Senator Ericksen, a Western alumnus, has proven to be a friend to Western and a strong advocate. It is a special obligation of a university community to provide a venue for civil and thoughtful discussion about the important issues that confront us and to do so in an atmosphere of respect for different viewpoints. The strength of our democracy is that all citizens, including students and leaders like Senator Ericksen, have the freedom of expression to take positions with diverse viewpoints. Consequently, any notion that we might seek to penalize a graduate for the positions they express shows a disturbing misunderstanding of the intellectual freedoms any university worthy of the name must stand for. And, protect.”

Incidentally and in case you were wondering, a Western spokesman on Wednesday, May 13, said Shepard did not release his statement in response to a request from Ericksen. Nor did it come out of the blue. The administration knew the campus newspaper, The Western Front, was working on a story about the attempt to revoke Ericksen’s degree and was prepared to make a statement for that story.

This came today from Paul Cocke, director of communications at Western:

President Shepard has had no discussion with Sen. Doug Ericksen on this matter. Prior to your blog running, the Western Front, the university’s student newspaper, contacted me about the student initiative and to ask whether it was possible to revoke an alum’s degree. I replied only in the case of academic dishonesty that occurred while attaining the degree. I also asked the Western Front, if they ran a story on this topic, to give the university administration the opportunity to respond, which was President Shepard’s statement that I sent both to you and to the Western Front. As President Shepard notes in his statement, freedom of speech and expression is crucial to open debate on our campus and in our country. President Shepard wanted to ensure his views on this were clear.

In a similar vein (yes, there is a mining pun in there), at a larger state school to our south, regents will decide whether to divest from coal companies. This is in response to the University of Washington’s own cadre of student climate activists.

UW activist Kyle Murphy told the Seattle news site Crosscut that a university with a reputation for sustainability can’t rightly be funding the coal industry through its investments:

“How can we build the most efficient buildings, create efficient transportation systems, have a cutting edge clean energy center, and undermine all that work by dumping millions of dollars in fossil fuel investments? It makes no sense to me.”

If UW regents vote Thursday, May 14, to divest from coal, they would follow in the footsteps of Stanford, Syracuse and some other universities. Yale and Harvard, among others, so far have rebuffed student pressure to divest from fossil fuels.