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Being a Scholar in Trumpian Times

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Image: Donald Trump at a campaign rally/Flickr user Gage Skidmore

As academics, our job responsibilities weren’t changed by the election of Donald Trump. But his presidency does promise to make our jobs more difficult — and our work more important than ever.

Like free speech and freedom of the press, scholarly inquiry is an ingredient of a functional democracy. With our federal government careening toward an anti-intellectual autocracy — led by a science-denying president who panders to white male insecurities and prejudices — the open exchange of ideas is as essential as ever.

I've given a lot of thought lately to how we as academics can carry on. And I've identified four responsibilities we face as members of the academic community.

  • Keep up our research. It matters more than ever. I am a biologist who, very soon, will be working under a government that denies evolution and climate change as realities. That is hard to swallow. As academics, we must serve as keepers of rational thought, scientific investigation, and critical discourse. My own research program uses experimental natural history to discover new phenomena in tropical rainforests, and to understand how animals respond to rapidly changing environments. That type of basic research is important because it advances the progress of knowledge and provides avenues to train a new generation of scientists. Your own academic work remains important, too. The need for intellectual activity will be more urgent when we have an anti-intellectual government.
  • Teach critical thinking. Our students need the ideas and skills that we are teaching. It's our job to offer them expertise in collecting and weighing evidence to reach rational and well-supported conclusions. When people make decisions, they're prone to use their own emotions instead of evidence. As professors who advocate reason, we cannot change that. Inside our classrooms, however, we can get people used to making decisions on the basis of evidence, which should extend into more open-minded discourse outside the classroom. Can this make a difference? A supportive and free-thinking community certainly made a difference for former white nationalist Derek Black.
  • Advocate publicly for evidence-based decision making. Our new government is planning measures that will accelerate climate change globally and remove resources critical for sustaining human health. My scholarship, as an ecologist, directly informs the public about how animals and ecosystems are responding to climate change, and I should not try to minimize my expertise when I’m communicating with members of the public. Regardless of your research specialty, we need your contributions in the public sphere. The public has to understand the need for basic and applied research in science (a long-term battle). At this moment, the costs of history repeating itself are particularly great, and now we need our historians, sociologists, economists, and political philosophers to step up to the plate, too. It’s up to us to put science and fact-based decision-making in the public eye — in the news, in the blogs, and in social media. We need scholars to become part of the national conversation.
  • Build diverse and inclusive academic communities. Since Trump prevailed in the election, some of his supporters have been working hard to make this country hostile to ethnic and religious minorities. Trump has not disavowed his endorsement by the KKK, and he recently appointed an overt alt-right white nationalist as his chief strategist. Previous administrations have prioritized increasing the diversity of our nation's scientific workforce, and universities have been working, with various levels of success, toward equity and ethnic pluralism. Now that swastika graffiti is appearing on schools and universities across the country, we as academics need to be more vocal and take more action to promote diversity on our campuses. We must place the highest priority on the safety and inclusion of the marginalized members of our communities. At the same time, we are dealing with an administration that is planning a registry of all members of a particular religion. We must unabashedly work for the inclusion of scientists from underrepresented groups as they face greater hostility in our own country.

As academics, our job is the same under a Trump administration: We research, we teach, we conduct outreach, and we build a supportive community. However, we must redouble our efforts, because with anti-intellectuals running the show, our work and our community service is needed now more than ever. If we isolate our teaching, research, and service within the walls of our universities, then we are complicit in the disregard for the value of our work. We must engage.

Note to readers: Are you worried about how the new administration’s policies will affect your research, teaching, and service, or your institution? Share your concerns in the comments below or tell us on Twitter.

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