Report: University of Iowa Faculty Told Not to Promote Greta Thunberg Visit on School Social Media

University of Iowa officials have told faculty at the school that they should not promote 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s surprise appearance at a Friday climate strike in Iowa City on its social media channels, according to a report in the Gazette.

UI civil and environmental engineering professor Michelle Scherer, who is also the associate director of a National Science Foundation Sustainable Water Development Graduate Program, told the paper that she had suggested social channels tied to the university’s engineering and IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering schools mention Thunberg’s appearance at the protest. The climate strike involved UI students and, according to USA Today, was intended to push the university into accelerating its climate action plan after similar efforts resulted in change at regional high schools and the city government.

In response, Engineering College director of marketing and communications Jason Kosovski shot the idea down, stating that it would implicitly violate university policies against “political activity.” (Thunberg has become the target of predictable backlash from right-wingers in recent weeks after telling off the United Nations during a speech in September, demanding that governments take more aggressive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.)

The Gazette wrote:

“We cannot use our channels to publicize or promote policy change,” replied Jason Kosovski, director of marketing and communications in the Engineering College. “We are always free to publicize our research, even if it has policy impacts, but Greta’s visit does not fit under the umbrella of university research.”

He stressed faculty and staff not use college, center, or department channels to promote Thunberg’s visit.

“I have consulted with UI Government Relations, and they have emphasized that this event does not fall within the scope of something we can promote,” Kosovski wrote.

Another UI employee, spokeswoman Anne Bassett, directed Scherer to college policies prohibiting “the use of the university name for any purpose in any non-university endeavor not previously sanctioned by the Office of Strategic Communication.”

According to the Gazette, the municipal government of Iowa City, area high schools, UI Student Government, and UI Graduate Student Government have all passed climate resolutions; the student government representatives also worked their counterparts from other Big Ten schools to pass one at a conference this summer. That resolution demanded that “take action to address social and ecological disruption and address its contribution to the catastrophic loss of the planet’s biodiversity and worsening effects of climate change by leaving a generation unprepared for ecological and social crises ahead.”

The Gazette wrote that Scherer considered sending the message anyway under the justification that the climate issue is apolitical as well as relevant to the university’s climate impact. In addition to missing a major opportunity to draw focus to the school’s environmental programs, Scherer told the paper that UI President Bruce Herreld’s plan for the school to go coal-free by 2025 was insufficient.

“That’s six years away,” Scherer told the paper. “That’s too slow. It’s way too conservative.” She added that UI has made overtures towards privatizing its utilities operations, possibly losing control of things like fuel sourcing.

“There are lots of things we need to do to really stop emissions,” Scherer told the Gazette, such as “no more coal. It’s not a big lift.”

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