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Not Your Dad’s Academy

Not Your Dad’s Academy

The out-of-touch professor is a shopworn cliché that recurs in fiction and, unfortunately, in real life as well. Eighteen months ago, the head of the MacArthur Foundation lamented "the theoretical turn across the social sciences and humanities that has cut off academic discourse from the way ordinary people and working professionals speak and think." The U.S. Congress had already arrived at that conclusion, and in 2013, it eliminated National Science Foundation funding for political science — a move that earned applause from mainstream commentators. As if to add insult to injury, academics were told this week that they have "marginalized themselves" because they "encode their insights into turgid prose." Or, as David Rothkopf, who runs Foreign Policy, tweeted, "too many are opaque, abstract, incremental, dull."

No doubt, some academics are guilty of such charges, but a growing fraction of professors are becoming more, not less, engaged in public debates. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that most of the people levying this charge against academics are approaching the retirement age. They’re relying on a view of the academy that might have been true when they were students, but no longer matches up to reality.

Clearly, some corrections are in order. 

The most obvious shift in the past decade has been the growth of venues beyond peer-reviewed publications where scholars can hawk their wares to the general public. Blogs have been around so long that they are now accepted as something that professors do on the side. Not all professors blog, but more and more of them accept the idea of blogs. According to a 2012 survey of international relations professors, more than 51 percent believed that blogs had improved the state of the scholarly field. Fully 90 percent of respondents thought blogs had improved foreign-policy formulation. Retrograde efforts to block these outlets, such as the International Studies Association’s proposed ban on personal blogs for editors, have been beaten back with little difficulty. Academics are also embracing other social media to communicate with policymakers and the public, ranging from Twitter to TEDx. 

While individual academics have explored these new forms of media, the challenge is to make it easier and more rewarding for junior scholars to translate their academic research into more accessible forms. The Tobin Project, for example, sponsors academic research that is pertinent to policy debates. They also arrange meetings between policymakers and academics (I’ve participated in more than one of them). Similarly, the New York-based Carnegie Corporation has funded the Bridging the Gap Initiative, a consortium of three universities that tutors junior scholars and connects them with policymakers from the diplomatic, defense, and intelligence communities. The Scholars Strategy Network, an association of academics and researchers directed by noted sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol, has pursued a similar strategy toward national, state, and local issues. 

As academics have expanded their public outreach, they have made serious inroads into mainstream media outlets. In the past six months, the Washington Post has subsumed multi-author blogs run by political scientists and lawyers — The Monkey Cage and Volokh Conspiracy — under its umbrella. In the past week the New York Times has hired two academic political scientists and an academic economist to aid in a new project in analytical journalism. All of this follows a presidential election in which data-driven political scientists easily outperformed traditional pundits in predicting the electoral outcome. Ironically, claims that academics rely too much on quantitative work come just as that work is gaining mainstream acceptance. 

Of course, not all professors are trying to engage either publics or policymakers.  But, frankly, not all them should. Think of the academy as housing a continuum of skills, ranging from those who excel at pure research to those who are good at policy-relevant work. All of these kinds of research have value to the public. Indeed, my own research on economic sanctions, economic interdependence, and global governance rests on the bedrock of more abstract international relations theory. Every time I write an op-ed or a blog post, I’m standing on the shoulders of my more theoretically-inclined colleagues. More importantly, while it is fully appropriate for professors to advise policymakers, it is equally appropriate to criticize them.

Those who chose a career in the academy in the 21st century are a foolhardy lot.  The job market for professors has shrunk while the expectations for tenure-track faculty have risen. The "adjunctificaion" of the academy is proceeding apace. The phrase "publish or perish" still applies with a vengeance — but so does the demand to be a dynamic teacher that reaches students. For those lucky few who run the gauntlet of graduate school and actually land a real job, they can look forward to explaining to their parents that yes, they have to do real work during the summer.

Social scientists face enough challenges in the present day. Accusing them of a stereotype that is a generation out of date borders on cruel. No one would confuse Mad Men with the current climate for advertising firms. Outside critics of the academy would be well-served by looking past their own hazy undergraduate memories.