A Career of Research, Inclusion and Opportunities for Higher Education: Dr. Risa Palm
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the Fall 2018 semester, the university announced that Dr. Risa Palm, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Georgia State for nearly a decade, would step down from the position to join the faculty effective at the end of June 2019. As Dr. Palm’s final semester as Provost comes to a close, this article explores how her future research will continue to tackle one of the most critical problems of our time – climate change.
This story also looks at how her early-career experiences helped to instill a passion for the inclusion of women in higher education. It also looks back on Dr. Palm’s work with the university’s transformative 2011/16-21 Strategic Plan along with new challenges and opportunities as the university considers strategic priorities for another innovative decade.
I hope that you enjoy this look back, as well as a look forward to the future.
– Jeremy Craig, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations
Office of the Provost, Georgia State University
- For the Future: Political Attitudes and Climate Change
- Reacting to Risk: California, Earthquakes and Real Estate Risks
- Starting Out in Academia: Bringing In New Perspectives from Women
- Georgia State’s Strategic Direction & the Future of Higher Education
For the Future: Political Attitudes and Climate Change
During the decade when Risa Palm began her career as an urban geographer, the United States was already taking action to reverse the degradation of the environment through legislation limiting aerosols and reducing air pollution. At that time both sides of the political aisle agreed on the need to take action: a Democratic Congress and a Republican president passed legislation to protect air and water, and the Environmental Protection Agency was founded.
What a difference several decades make.
Today, political arguments and attitudes about climate change, along with a hyper-partisan media environment, have led to a lack of the significant actions that are needed to counter the threat.
But are political attitudes about climate change truly intractable?
Dr. Palm, a professor of geosciences, is looking to see how political attitudes might change depending on the way the issue is framed.
Joining the university’s faculty after serving as Georgia State’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs for a decade, she hopes to find a way to bridge the divide.
She found significant relationships with political ideology, party affiliation and interest in news and public affairs as affecting opinion on climate change.
“Most people do accept that the climate is changing, and that climate change has been made worse by human activity,” Dr. Palm said.
But there is a skeptical and powerful minority who either do not believe that climate change is a serious problem or that our actions are making it worse.
One possible signal to such skeptics may be the effect of climate change on housing markets in areas at risk of sea level rise, flooding and wildfires. The market could reflect these increased risks through higher interest rates on home loans or additional mortgage insurance requirements that would increase the price for buyers and reduce the return to sellers. South Florida will be an area to watch for these impacts.
Her research into attitudes surrounding climate change is compelling to her not just for the broader societal challenge, but also for her as a grandmother to two children, ages 2 and 6.
“I’m passionate about it just because we have a responsibility as citizens to be custodians of our environment, and we have a responsibility to pass this healthy environment on to our children and grandchildren. I’m very worried that we haven’t taken this issue seriously enough,” Dr. Palm said. “I look at the accelerating speed of climate change and the fact that the country and the world are not taking measures to mitigate this problem.”
From the Women Inspire Lecture Series
Political Ideology and Climate Change Attitudes
Presentation delivered April 2018
The lecture discussed findings of research about how political ideology influences views on climate change, and whether those views may change if people become more informed about the problem or experience the effects of climate change first-hand.
Along with a global comparison of views about climate change and common predictors about those beliefs, the presentation also discussed findings about what might shift the beliefs of those in the U.S. who do not perceive climate change as a serious risk to the nation and the world during the 21st century.
To obtain a transcript, please click here: https://provost.gsu.edu/files/2019/03/Transcript-Risa-Palm-Women-Inspire-April-2018.pdf.
Reacting to Risk: California, Earthquakes and Real Estate Risks
In a way, addressing climate change – something that’s causing, and will increase the ferocity, of many natural hazards — falls in line with some of her earlier research into a different hazard: earthquakes and information surrounding their risk around real estate.
Having started her career at the University of California at Berkeley, coming from Minnesota, she found that the housing market was much more complicated. And at the time, before the public could access the same real estate information that we can today, real estate agents held a lot of the information and could guide clients’ searches for housing.
Later in her career, a colleague at the University of Colorado at Boulder pointed out that a new California state law required real estate agents to tell homebuyers that their property was at risk of being damaged by an earthquake due to a nearby fault.
“I spent a lot of time trying to sort through what real estate agents knew, what they actually disclosed, and what the process was,” Dr. Palm said. “I found that homebuyers didn’t really remember the real estate agents’ disclosure, and often the real estate agents didn’t know what they were disclosing.
“These districts had been named ‘special study zones,’ so it wasn’t intuitive on the surface that these ‘zones’ had anything to do with earthquakes,” she explained.
Dr. Palm evaluated lenders and appraisers to see what kind of influence that they had on the housing market, and the research continued to expand to examine international differences in how people from different countries think about hazard risks.
This included comparing Japanese and American attitudes towards earthquake hazards and preparedness.
“What we could so very obviously see in our questionnaires was the incredible value that Americans put on optimism,” Dr. Palm said.
In comparing attitudes toward climate change in the U.S. and in other countries, it’s not necessarily a different set of cultural values that cause the disparity. It’s the American political and media environment that has a big role.
The challenge is to navigate this political and media environment so that those in the skeptical minority can join with others to tackle the problem.
“In finding the consensus about what to do, and what we need to get to a place where we can develop a consensus about what to do, there’s so much work to do there that really lies ahead,” Dr. Palm said.
Catch a glimpse by clicking the links below. (PDFs will open in new windows.)
Starting Out in Academia: Bringing In New Perspectives from Women
Since Dr. Palm first began graduate studies in geography, new tools have helped to expand research capabilities, including the groundbreaking power of geographic information systems. But beyond these tools, the very approaches geographers take in examining issues have also changed.
For example, just as in the rest of society, the inclusion of women helped to enrich geography research by bringing additional perspectives into the mix.
“There were questions that perhaps men would not have raised that women who worked in geography were raising,” Dr. Palm said. “People with different sorts of backgrounds will bring different experiences, and different eyes to issues. The more differences that we have working together, the more enriched we are and the more we advance.”
One example includes a branch of geography that investigates travel patterns and access to work, including how people choose homes and how cities develop. Taking women into consideration added an additional perspective beyond just the travel patterns of men – such as the complications of work and taking children to childcare.
“I think the fact that we were looking at the complications of lives, because we had lived those lives, just made it easier to bring a different kind of eye to the research,” she explained.
Inclusion has been a priority for Dr. Palm since she began in academia. There weren’t very many women in the geography Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, and when she arrived at her first faculty position at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1970s, she was the only woman in the department – the first woman hired for a tenure-track faculty position at the time.
“It’s hard to imagine now because things have changed so much, and so much for the better,” she said, “but it did feel like you were always being examined. It was hard to know how to take certain things.
“For example, I had a colleague who used to stand when I walked into the room – which was very gentlemanly of him – but I would prefer not to have that much attention called to me when I walk into a room,” Dr. Palm continued.
At UC-Berkeley, she became a mentor to women graduate students across a wide variety of fields.
“That experience taught me that there is something more than just the intellectual commonality that people have in the graduate school experience,” Dr. Palm said. “Certainly, with this group of women and with other tenure-line faculty in a variety of places, we were very committed in trying to make sure that people succeeded.”
In her profession, she also led in inclusion. She was the second woman elected to the position of president of the American Association of Geographers in 1984; the first served in 1921. The organization currently has 12,000 members.
Georgia State’s Strategic Direction & the Future of Higher Education
Student success continues to be a priority. Dr. Palm helped to lead the university’s implementation of a 10-year strategic plan that has built Georgia State’s reputation for innovation in student success, and in research and scholarship.
“The goal was to make Georgia State more productive, and I think the largest areas were to look at how our students were performing, how our students were being educated, and how we were creating knowledge,” she said. “We really wanted to look at what Georgia State was doing, and what could be done to make Georgia State better.”
Challenges abounded: the strategic plan was put into motion in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, forcing the state to cut budgets. And at any large organization, there’s always resistance to cultural change.
But the university successfully redirected funding within its budget toward strategic priorities and combined with financial support from the Board of Regents, resources expanded into student advising, with a change of structure, new advisors added, and a change of expectations.
And with research expansion, a redirection in faculty hires through the interdisciplinary Second Century Initiative program, now succeeded by the Next Generation Program, brought top researchers and scholars in their fields.
“I think it’s going to be important not to do a continuation of the last five years, or the last 10 years, but instead to really look again at what’s going on in higher education, just as we did earlier,” she said.
“What’s going on in higher education? Where exactly can Georgia State make a mark and not at all be bound by what has been done before?” Dr. Palm continued. “I think the university won’t be bound by tradition, but instead look at opportunities, and I think that will be the healthiest thing.”