Science is political. Not only does science have political implications, politics shapes the direction and demands of the scientific process. In a few months’ time, we will see the interaction between politics and science right in front of our eyes when Bates College will break ground on a new, multi-million dollar science building in 2019.
On the surface, this seems like an excellent step forward for the sciences at Bates. Departments like Biology and Chemistry will have access to much improved resources. The Neuroscience department can move out of its puzzling location in Hathorn Hall. Students and professors will have access to top-of-the-line research equipment.
But the story of this new science building is also political. It is much bigger than technological and structural improvements. What will lie behind the building’s façade is not just busy students performing scientific research, but an ongoing identity crisis. The construction of this new science building will be yet another questionable step by an administration predicated on transforming Bates from a progressive college that was founded by abolitionists to a carbon copy of every other elitist liberal arts school.
This building will use up millions of dollars that could be used to reinforce Bates’s tradition of educating the marginalized and boldly differentiate Bates from the other NESCACS. Not only that, this building is an insult to student organizers like Bates Student Action who have been relentlessly pushing for Bates to eliminate student loans completely. Out of the three NESCAC schools in Maine, Bates is the only one that still retains loans in its financial aid packages, and the administration justifies this arrangement by claiming that our endowment is too small. So why have student organizers been fed this explanation when we will be able to see the falsehoods of this argument on Campus Avenue in the coming year?
For the past few years, the college has been running a fundraising campaign called Bates+. The campaign has set a total goal of $300 million raised, $75 million of which will potentially go to “Investing in Educational Opportunity” (financial aid), and $53 million of which will go to the sciences, including this new building. Ostensibly, it seems like financial aid will be taken care of, but if we look at the campaign’s website, we can see that the plan for the STEM funds are specific and detailed, unlike the page for financial aid, which remains vague and nebulous.
We can also infer from the numbers that the administration only considers financial aid .5x more important than STEM improvements, even though the cost of attendance at Bates is obscenely high. We will be getting new facilities and buildings, but it seems financial aid will still largely remain the same. This discrepancy reveals a divergence of priorities on this campus that is directly attributable to those who control it.
The $50 million donation which will anchor the new science building was given to Bates by pharma and biotech CEO Michael Bonney, the current Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Now some may say that Mr. Bonney has the right to donate his funds wherever he wants, which is true in American society. But as Chairman of the Board, he should know better.
He should know that the New York Times reported that 18% of Bates students come from families in the top 1%. He should know that they revealed that 13% of Bates students come from families in the bottom 60%. He should know that $50 million would enable Bates to eliminate loans for 15 years without any cuts according to our 2017 institutional profile.
What we have here is a clear-cut conflict of interest. It should be no surprise that a pharma and biotech CEO would be more responsive to the needs of his industry rather than the needs of our most vulnerable students. Unfortunately, this is a reality at many other colleges in the United States. Corporate interest is pitted against students’ livelihoods.
But we here at Bates do not have to accept this reality. While we cannot delay and should not prevent the construction of this building, we can make it known that we oppose the Bates administration’s investments in its prestige instead of its students. We can create a movement that can turn the tide and make Bates the liberator it was supposed to be, and we can start with this new science building.