Update: After posting this piece yesterday, the National Association of Scholars got in touch with us to push back on some of the assertions I made below, especially on the structure of NAS and its funding.

The (admittedly short) research I’d done on NAS pulled up a description from SourceWatch that said “according to its 2009 IRS Form 990 (Part VI Section A), the Association doesn’t have members (line 6), members don’t elect the officers (line 7a), and the decisions of the governing body are not subject to members’ approval (line 7b).”  NAS clarified that they have “several thousand faculty members, administrators, students, and citizens, who hold meetings with state affiliate chapters, receive copies of our quarterly journal, and in other ways interact as an association.” Fair enough , that counts an association in my book.

NAS also pushed back on the assertion that they’re “industry” funded. According to NAS, the Scaife Foundation is a donor, but that “funding had nothing to do with and was in no way conditional on our work on sustainability or divestment.” I’ll take them at their word on that one, although it remains a valid point that the other recipients of Scaife funding  (Hoover, AEI, Heritage, etc.) are indeed a who’s who of climate misinformation.

The NAS didn’t push back on its record of going after sustainability in higher education (their president did in fact publish a book referring to it as higher education’s “new fundamentalism”). That history doesn’t disqualify them from commenting on divestment, but it does give you a useful sense of their ideological bent . An honest thanks to NAS for the clarifications. At this point, we can agree to disagree–and keep making a forceful case for our side.  

Today the New York Times is hosting another “Room for Debate” on the efficacy of the fossil fuel divestment movement. Here at Go Fossil Free, we love seeing a healthy discussion about divestment. Debates about the carbon bubble, the moral responsibility of institutions to act, the financial and political impact of divestment, etc. all help spur the campaign forward, hone our strategies, and generate a key ingredient for all social change: heat.

But good debate needs to be honest and transparent. Today the Times stumbled by not making it clear that one of the contributors to its debate, the National Association of Scholars, is in fact neither an association, nor a group of scholars: it’s an industry funded right wing think tank.

According to SourceWatch, the NAS is a “non-profit organization in the United States that opposes multiculturalism and affirmative action and seeks to counter what it considers a ‘liberal bias’ in academia.” The group’s primary funder is the Sarah Scaife Foundation, an offshoot of the Mellon industrial, oil, aluminum and banking fortune. Other groups supported by Scaife foundation funding in include the Heritage Foundation, The Hoover Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, all prominent right-wing think tanks who’ve been at the forefront of spreading misinformation about the climate crisis and opposing action to address it.

The NAS has its own nasty track record of intolerance and anti-environmental advocacy. The “association” has been a long time opponent of multiculturalism and affirmative action. Back in 2012, for example, a writer associated with the group argued in the Wall Street Journal that “activist” professors at the University of California were “indoctrinating” students and having a “corrupting” effect on the university.

More recently, the NAS has lobbied against the “broad imposition of the ‘sustainability’ agenda on university activity and campus life,” (they’ve also opposed the “neglect of character education” at colleges, but who really knows what’s that’s all about). The President of NAS, Peter W. Wood, wrote a book called Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalismwhich admittedly I haven’t read, but judging from the title I’m assuming he’s not a fan of the concept. In a blog for the Huffington Post last April, Wood wrote that universities that warned their students about climate crisis were “dangerously intemperate” and were likely under the influence of “enviro-radicals” like 350.org founder Bill McKibben.

Little  surprise then that the association is on the attack against the divestment movement. As the movement has grown in size, the fossil fuel industry has increasingly gone on the offensive, trying everything from launching animations criticizing the effort (look up, “Breaking up with fossil fuels is hard to do,” it’s worth a good laugh) to trying to make divestment illegal in Australia.

Methinks the industry protests too much. When fossil fuel front groups are so quick to point out how divestment isn’t working, you can be pretty sure it’s having an impact. As we continue to debate the importance of the growing divestment campaign, let’s make sure to be clear about where each party is coming from.


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