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Point of Personal Privilege

It’s move-in day at the ASU dorms in downtown Phoenix.

It has been nearly 40 years since the day I left home in my ‘56 Chevy headed to college, and here I am packing-up our youngest for this new chapter in his life.

When I entered ASU in the 1970s, my small-town Kansas roots accompanied me. Little did I realize at the time just how much a singular event from home would shape my future. Nearly a decade before starting college, my hometown, and its salt mines, were selected by the Atomic Energy Commission as the nation’s “first” repository for high-level nuclear waste.  We were Yucca Mountain before Yucca Mountain.

This experience inspired me to study energy and public policy.  Only one problem, though, there wasn’t an energy policy program at ASU at the time.  In fact, there wasn’t an energy policy program at any university or college at the time.  So, I did what any imaginative college kid would do -- I wrote my own degree program: Energy Education and Environmental Studies.

Needless to say, a lot has changed in society and academia since those days.

My son grew-up in a house outfitted with a rooftop solar electric system that supplies nearly half of our household electricity needs. That experience, combined with a father that is an energy wonk, has shaped what he wants to study (at least for now): He is enrolled in the College of Public Policy with an emphasis on Sustainability. 

Today, students interested in a career in Energy and Sustainability can choose from a variety of degree programs, and ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability (GIS) is recognized as a leader in the field among US universities.

On the surface, the societal transformation to a cleaner future is best illustrated by the presence of the computer monitors in the lobby of the GIS building displaying real-time energy production from the university’s 23.5 megawatts of rooftop solar.

But, the real culture change at ASU, is in the classroom.

When I attended ASU only a handful of energy policy classes were even offered, and most were taught by Dr. Mark Reader.  Dr. Reader was a nationally recognized thought-leader in the field of energy and political theory in the 1970s and 80s.  However, in the mid-1980s, his theories and teachings came under attack by the conservative Washington DC-based think-tank, Accuracy in Academia (AIA). AIA’s efforts were an attempt to intimidate the free exchange of ideas in classrooms, and Dr. Reader was one of their first targets – signaled out because his views of energy policy did not reflect the AIA’s views.  

Dr. Reader wasn’t afraid to expound on the perils of the nuclear fuel cycle and its impacts on democracy in general.  He also talked of an alternative future – one in which rooftop solar power represents the best of our country’s democratic values. He taught that solar power offered the prospects for a future where social and economic power is more widely distributed and not concentrated in just a few hands.

The AIA objected to Dr. Reader’s energy theories and sent “monitors” into his classroom, and even pressured the university to fire him. 

In the end, it was the AIA’s narrow-mindset and its actions that came under intense scrutiny.  President Regan’s Secretary of Education, prominent conservative William Bennett, described the AIA as a “bad idea.”

CBS Evening News reported that academic freedom was under attack at ASU.  Even popular syndicated comic strip creator, Garry Trudeau, skewered the group in the funny pages through a series in his Doonesbury strip.

Next week, my son will take a seat in an ASU classroom and a professor will tell the students they are in “A Sustainable World” class -- and his journey and quest for truth will begin. I just hope he will find a professor like Mark Reader that will have a meaningful, and profound influence on his life – regardless of the direction its takes him.

Jim Arwood
Communications Director
Arizona Solar Center

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