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Lawyers, Guns and Money (for Science & Education)

“Send lawyers, guns and money.  The shit has hit the fan!” – from a song by Warren Zevon

I have come to terms with the results of the presidential election, such that I no longer wake up expecting to find Hillary preparing to take office.  Donald J. Trump will be president.  The optimist in me hopes for two things.  First, that Trump’s inflated egotistical need for praise and admiration will occasionally lead him to zig and zag away from failed conservative orthodoxy into policies that work.  An alternative Republican scenario of an unchecked Mike Pence presidency (please Donald don’t die or quit in the next 4 years!) looms in my mind as even a darker future.  Second, there is the chance that Trump appointees to important government posts will surprise.  I do remember back when Ronald Reagan came into office he appointed an aging, fundamentalist Christian, conservative, white guy to be Surgeon General.  We on the left were appalled and expected a medical dark age littered with back-alley abortions.  The man, C. Everett Koop, to everyone’s shock and amazement checked his ideology and religion at the door and worked tirelessly to improve health for all Americans.  He supported policies based on the science, not the political expediency.   He ended his term as the most beloved, trusted and effective Surgeon General in US history.  At least, so we liberals say!

Yes, it can happen.  But there is also the example of James Watt; Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior.  He famously divided the country into two groups: liberals and Americans. Like Koop, a religious conservative and believer we are living in the end times.  Unlike Koop, he neither set aside his religion nor his politics after taking office.  He did his utmost to destroy the agency under him and to open all public lands, including National Parks, to industrial exploitation.  Sadly, we probably should be more expectant that Trump’s people will be more like Watt and less like Koop.

The optimist hopes; the realist plans.  This past July I became Chair of my department – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA.  Our departmental name, I’m afraid now consists of two things likely grossly out of fashion with the new administration.  I expect the National Science Foundation to take a severe hit in these very areas that support my colleagues’ research.  And likely our pain will be slight compared to my other colleagues in the Social Sciences.  Terms like “diversity”, “social justice”, “income inequality”, “climate change”, “inclusivity”, and “LGBTQ” have become political statements rather than topics for measured research and discussion.  If there does seem to be one thing that Trump always holds to and acts upon, it is consequences.  We opposed him, we lost, we can expect payback in spades.

If this does come to pass, the Trump administration can certainly expect a strongly-worded letter of reproach from us!

Then there are the Dreamers among our students; the DACA kids studying for degrees and to make a productive future for themselves.  Well, they are here illegally and unlike the bad “hombres” they are pretty much in plain view.  They can be easily found and sent back to wherever.

And if mass deportations of University of California students do come to pass, the Trump administration can certainly expect a strongly-worded letter of reproach from us!

Words!  My sarcasm aside, words are always a good start, but rarely enough by themselves.  Can we – the University – do more?

Hey UC system!  I’m looking at the 2015 figures and the endowment for the entire system was over $14 billion.  For UCLA alone, the figure is $3.5 billion.  Now I’m sure 2016 has been another banner year for investments and fundraising, so these numbers have all probably gone up.  If this was meant to see us through a rainy day, don’t you think there is a huge storm very rapidly approaching?

Universities are supposed to be the hotbeds of creativity and innovation.  Let’s see if we can actually figure out how to use the rich coffers of endowment to mitigate Trump.  For example, what if the federal government now only supports research which has immediate defense or monetary gain, or cures the diseases and health problems of aging white men?  Whole fields of research in ecology, evolutionary biology, the social sciences, and women’s health are left to financially starve. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if UC stepped in and funded the suddenly orphaned areas of scientific inquiry!  Send the money – don’t need the lawyers or guns for this.

We are publically addressing the concerns the election has had for our students.  It is certainly a good start to let the DACA kids know we won’t rat them out and that there are counselling services available.  But a far more powerful message would be to say the UC will also provide both lawyers and money (no guns still needed!) to oppose any efforts to deport them.  Is there not a creative way to use some endowment funds to keep a lot of our best and brightest here where they belong?

What if the administration cuts scholarship and low-cost loan support for attending university, because it’s clear that higher education tends to make people more likely to vote Democratic?  Will the increasing lack of access and spiraling student debt count as a rainy day?  If going forward, the federal government abdicates its responsibility for higher education, is not the correct and ethical choice to look within?  I sure hope so.  Find a way to turn any metaphorical “guns” in the endowments into money supporting student education!

The next four years may be dismal for higher ed.  Trump and the Republicans have won and we should expect they will do what they promised.  If the worst does come to pass, then the real crime will be if university endowments just continue to grow – both at my UC and elsewhere.  Now will be the time to circle wagons and spend down if needed to preserve the system, and not to maximize the bottom line on financial statements.

On a very different note – I’m signing off from School of Doubt.  As I said, I am now a glorious “Chair”.  For a while, I thought I’d find time to do that job, my research, supervise my students, and write the occasional useful contribution.  Not so.  Also, previous posts reflected just me as your one professor in one department.  Now there may be a perception that I am representing a set of colleagues, too.  Not always true, but one of the first lessons I’ve learned in chairship is that perceptions do quite matter.  Therefore, with true sadness, goodbye.  It’s been a fun ride and I’ll continue as a reader.  Many thanks to everyone associated with this place – especially Dan.  He has kept this site a going concern and interesting place to be even while trying to have an actual career.  Our profession needs him and more like him.  Someone soon has to be smart enough to hire this guy!

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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