Agricultural and Resource Economics and Policy C1, “Introduction to Environmental Economics and Policy” is a class many students in the (formerly named) UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources take, whether it be for the major of environmental economics and policy itself or just to fulfill a requirement.
I took the class simply because I wanted to. It felt incredibly important that my academic career — which focuses on environmental health, justice and equity — also included a class on economics to further my interdisciplinary focus. I took the class with the only professor that offered it: Gordon Rausser. Even though I am proud to have taken a class that makes tackling issues of environmental justice and equity all the more nuanced, complex and realistic, my experiences with Rausser forever changed my path here at UC Berkeley.
Rausser has an impressive and controversial background. He was a senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisers (1986-87) under former President Ronald Reagan and has a professional history as a venture capitalist, as well as an entrepreneur. In the same vein, he served as the chair of the agricultural and resource economics department after leaving his faculty position at Harvard University before becoming the dean of the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley for six years starting in 1994. Although I would not say that I was impressed with his credentials and personal wealth, I did experience his controversial behavior firsthand.
During one of our first lectures, he used negotiating the price of a sex worker to demonstrate the simple economic concept of willingness to pay versus willingness to sell. In response to the shocked faces of the students during this lesson, he laughed heartily, seemingly amused that some students might have been offended.
When exam grades were distributed, he chose a surreal process to boost student morale: He made the students with the best and worst scores stand up in the middle of the entire lecture hall and told the students with the worst scores to be more like the students with the best scores. He would specifically single out students with the worst scores, embarrassing them in front of a crowd of their peers.
The same kind of behavior continued during office hours. If a student was struggling to grasp certain concepts, his condescension would get in the way of any effective help. If a student tried to challenge antiquated economic theories, as many do at a politically driven campus such as this one, he often became reluctant to listen.
For example, when questions came up about microeconomic barriers to small farmers from students in his class who were small farmers, his answers as a professor in agricultural and resource economics were out of touch with the reality of agriculture today and were insensitive to the student-farmers asking.
When it came to student mental health issues, he had a habit of using his age to justify why he couldn’t understand our “millennial” problems. Coming from someone who had to communicate with him regarding Disabled Students’ Program accommodations, it definitely felt as though he did not have the energy or desire to even learn about my experiences.
There is no way to properly articulate how difficult my time with him was. My sentiment regarding his teaching style was primarily that his subtle racism, misogyny and classism made it extremely difficult to garner any important lessons on environmental economics. With lessons that normalize structural violence such as the exam grade shaming, Rausser has a history of suppressing students who are negatively impacted by his actions, with many of them either dropping the class midway or struggling and sticking through with it despite the consequences to their health.
So when Rausser donated $50 million to the College of Natural Resources, changing the namesake of my college to the Rausser College of Natural Resources, I would be lying if I said I was not devastated.
I am devastated that a school fostering the leaders of tomorrow with environmental justice, racial equity and just transition solutions is going to be named after someone who seems to represent the exact opposite.
I am devastated that a person who has caused me and many other students so much mental grief, dangerously anxious behavior and serious contemplations of dropping out of this university is going to be the namesake of the college that I and many others will receive degrees from in just a few months.
I am gracious for Rausser’s $50-million contribution. The departments in CNR will forever change because of it. But it is a bit ironic considering the work students are doing to change the names of buildings such as Barrows Hall and LeConte Hall due to their namesakes’ racist legacies, as well as the recent removal of racist John Boalt’s name from the UC Berkeley School of Law, that the College of Natural Resources will now be named after someone many students find to be representative of ideas and theories that have not kept up with the changing times.
Especially with all of the great work students of color in environmental spaces have done in the past to reckon with the very problematic history of the College of Natural Resources, it seems like a slap in the face that the college is now named after someone who seems to embody those problems.
For these reasons, #RausserCollegeIsNotMyCollege.
Kajol Gupta, Maceo Hart-Kapic and Angela White are seniors in the College of Natural Resources.