Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Thursday, December 17, 2020

Viewpoint Diversity Award for Matthew Burgess

CU Boulder assistant professor Matthew Burgess earns national recognition from Heterodox Academy

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The Heterodox Academy has selected CU Boulder environmental economist Matthew Burgess as the recipient of its 2020 Open Inquiry Award for teaching. With this award, Burgess joins Harvard University’s Cornel West, Princeton’s Robert George, Alice Dreger (formerly Northwestern) and other thought leaders who have earned Open Inquiry Awards from the organization in recent years. 

The Heterodox Academy, which promotes open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement, called out Burgess for his work in and out of the classroom, creating opportunities for thinking and discussions that encourage students to challenge their beliefs and opinions, to separate questions of fact from questions of values and to approach differing values and opinions with curiosity and humility. 

“He advocates for a bipartisan, truth-informed approach to climate change, saying, ‘any approach to addressing climate change that doesn’t pursue and follow the truth will fail. Any approach that is not bipartisan—nor gains broad public support—will fail in a democracy,’" the Academy wrote in its announcement.

For example, Burgess, who is also a CIRES Fellow, initiated a campus discussion group this year called “Reducing Polarization Dialogs.” During the Fall semester, every Friday at lunchtime, he convened a group of students, staff, faculty, Regents and politicians from across the political spectrum to meet and discuss political differences, similarities and preconceptions. 

“I was inspired to work on this issue by two observations,” Burgess said. “First, I’ve been alarmed by sharp declines in trust in universities since 2015 among Independents and Republicans. It is clear to me that this is at least partly driven by university communities increasingly struggling to discuss important societal challenges with nuance, multiplicity of viewpoints and truth-seeking as a lodestar.

“Second, climate change seems like an issue that is too big to be addressable without bipartisanship, and yet it has become highly polarized. I don’t see a sustainable path to addressing climate change unless we work together.”  

Burgess has written about the importance of leaving space for “dangerous ideas” (e.g., in this blog post) and implemented this and other evidence-based dialog, discussion and debate practices in the "Sustainable Economies" class (ENVS 3555) he developed. At the beginning of the class, he asks students to describe an issue on which they recently changed their mind. At the end, he has students debate the Green New Deal, and organizes students in teams so that some end up arguing against their genuine beliefs. Spaces are still available in the class for Spring 2021.

Burgess has also been a consistent champion of academic freedom. WIth a colleague, he called for the CU Boulder Academic Futures committee to “explicitly reaffirm the importance of academic freedom, open discussion, constructive disagreement, and student resilience to the future of CU.”

In an Arc Digital opinion piece, Burgess and an undergraduate student also emphasized the importance of recognizing shared values, highlighting the many seemingly political issues in the United States that actually resonate with two-thirds or more Americans.