Fighting the Good Fight: Is There a Place for Activism in Academia?

Fannie Lou Hamer hands up

Photo of Mississippi voting activist Fannie Lou Hamer, June 1963.

Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

“But you see now baby, whether you have a ph.d., d.d. or no d, we’re in this bag together. And whether you are from Morehouse or Nohouse, we’re still in this bag together.” — Fannie Lou Hamer

With the recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent civilian protests and militarization of the Ferguson Police department, I’ve been feeling a type of way. I’m feeling tired and sad. I’m thankful that I get to hug my own Michael Brown every day, but afraid that at any moment that privilege could be taken away. But most of all, I’m frustrated. Frustrated that unarmed black people keep getting killed by police and vigilantes, and then slandered in the media. Frustrated that 50+ years have passed since the civil rights movement, and I will still have to teach my future child(ren) about how things are different for them because they are black in America, that they must take extra care just to stay alive. Frustrated that even if they do everything right, no matter how tailored their clothing or how many degrees they earn, sometimes people will treat them as if they are less than human. I want to DO something about it. I want to get in my car and drive to Missouri to march, protest, yell and scream. Do SOMETHING. But I feel like my hands are tied. I worry about how my activism might affect my career. When it comes time for job applications and interview requests, I consider whether I’d be placed in a box as “combative”, “militant” and “not committed to her science/work” right before being placed in the “not interested” pile. I know these things shouldn’t matter to me, and that it is important that my voice be heard, but I still worry. And I ask myself: “Is there is a place for activism in academia?”

From my experience, the greatest emphasis in academia is placed on doing exemplary and innovative science. You are expected to spend some of your time doing other things, whether it be teaching or mentoring students or community outreach (which should always be science related). Otherwise, you should be working in the lab, writing a grant proposal, giving talks at conferences or submitting a journal article for review in top journals. Anything else is considered a distraction, and should be excised from the budding scientist’s list of priorities.

With federal funding for STEM research in a precarious position created by sequestration and the subsequent slashing of funding agency budgets, followed by the abrupt removal of job security during the government shutdown, scientist-activism has found an opportunity to blossom. There are advocacy programs where researchers can spend a day in Washington, lobbying lawmakers to place a greater value on the potential of scientific America, to increase scientific funding and to find ways to better distribute funding for research. In fact, you can read about one experience here. Others arrange carpools to the nation’s capitol to picket and protest the current state of scientific funding. Still other academics organize campaigns to write letters to governors, congress, and anyone who will listen about the dire financial predicament that science finds itself in today. These people argue passionately for their cause and sometimes even inspire change. But again, this activism is science-related and thus convincing to the powers that be that it’s ok to devote a bit of time to this activity. Thus, this type of activism meets general approval.

Things get trickier when it comes to activism for things affecting scientists outside of the lab. Things like immigration reform. Women’s reproductive health. Race-related killings by the police. I watch (tenured) professors like Tricia Rose in the Africana Studies department of Brown University vigorously advocate for social justice on television and in their classrooms, with a sense of envy. I also wonder how many bright students gravitate toward the social sciences because of perceived ability to be vocal about issues of social justice in those fields, and a sense of intolerance for that type of expression in ours.

To a lowly postdoc, it appears that their tenured status and already successful careers make it easier for professors in the social sciences to speak up without fear of retribution; in fact many of them have made a lasting mark on their fields simply because of their passionate pleas for social equality and justice. But why shouldn’t that also extend to early career investigators, and for that matter, to professors in the hard sciences? Why should they have to pretend that issues that directly affect them and their daily lives, are of lesser consequence than getting that fantastic paper published in the “right journal”?

As part of the intelligentsia, it is tempting to believe we should be above the fray, caring only about what the scientific method and our own intellect can tell us about the world. But we shouldn’t forget that many of the social issues being debated and protested today affect all of us (and our science). Graduate students who worried about their family being detained and deported may have a hard time focusing on their work. Professors who have to worry about being arrested or even killed for being the wrong skin color in a certain part of town may have the same problem. So why shouldn’t they be allowed space and time to advocate for social change?

I believe that the passion of young professionals for changing the world around them and for making a difference should be seen as an asset. Because, honestly, isn’t that what science is all about? We all want to find the solutions to the problems of the world. Scientific discovery is a tried and true way to achieve that goal. And activism, in its many forms, is a valid pathway to lasting change within our society as well. As Fannie Lou Hamer says in the opening quote: “We’re in this bag together.” Maybe it’s time we started acting like it.