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How Austerity Killed the Center for Climate Justice: A Farewell to Ithaca College

"As a matter of conscience, how could I launch a center devoted to the idea of justice when so much injustice would be taking place all around me? It’s traumatizing."

Sandra Steingraber is a distinguished scholar in residence in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences. She is leaving Ithaca College following the finalization of the faculty cuts. (Photo: Courtesy of Laura Kozlowski)

Sandra Steingraber is a distinguished scholar in residence in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences. She is leaving Ithaca College following the finalization of the faculty cuts. (Photo: Courtesy of Laura Kozlowski) 

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. 

Because climate is connected to everything we love, it is also connected to all the classes we teach. 

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.

Each year, I lecture in 10 to 20 classes. Indeed, I may be the only faculty at Ithaca College who has taught or co-hosted programming in all five of our schools.

What does climate change have to do with human performance? Well, higher heat and humidity represent health threats to outdoor athletes. 

In California, three-quarters of new oil wells are drilled in Black or Latino communities. To understand the permitting of fossil fuel infrastructure, one needs to understand systemic racism. 

Women and gender studies shows us that domestic violence and sex trafficking accompany oil and gas fracking. 

And music? Ask me about the wood used to make Stradivarius violins. It’s sourced from forests now being decimated by extreme weather patterns in Italy. 

Because climate is connected to everything we love, it is also connected to all the classes we teach. 

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.

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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.

I can’t launch an intersectional Center for Climate Justice by myself.

At some point, I could no longer honestly assure my grantor that the climate initiative it was funding had the broad and deep support of the IC faculty, staff and administration.

Also, as a matter of conscience, how could I launch a center devoted to the idea of justice when so much injustice would be taking place all around me? It’s traumatizing.

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.

Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. is an ecologist, author, internationally recognized authority on the environment links to cancer and human health, and co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. She is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment and, her most recent, Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.

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