Does the Academy Matter?

Do policymakers listen? Should you get a Ph.D.? And where are all the women?

Photo: Christopher Leaman
Photo: Christopher Leaman
Photo: Christopher Leaman

In mid-February, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof kicked over an ivy-covered hornet's nest when he complained that too many professors sequester themselves in the ivory tower amid "a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience." The public, he wrote, would benefit from greater access to the wisdom of academics. "So, professors, don't cloister yourselves like medieval monks -- we need you!"

In mid-February, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof kicked over an ivy-covered hornet’s nest when he complained that too many professors sequester themselves in the ivory tower amid “a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” The public, he wrote, would benefit from greater access to the wisdom of academics. “So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”

Judging by the number of submissions that Foreign Policy gets from doctors of philosophy, we suspect that more than a few are trying to break out of the abbey. But the question of academia’s isolation from the “real world” is one that FP‘s editors debate as well. In fact, three weeks before Kristof’s article ran, we convened nine current and former deans from top public policy schools to discuss when and how scholarship influences policymakers — and whether academics even care if their work reaches a wider audience.

The deans quickly distinguished between policy schools, which embrace public discourse, and disciplinary departments like political science, which focus on “pure” research. Nevertheless, the dilemma remains: Academics may produce incisive foreign policy analysis, but if a research paper falls in the forest … well, Washington couldn’t care less. And our participants remain concerned, as one bluntly put it, that too many talented professors and students are doing work that has “nothing to do with improving the human condition.”

Here you’ll find an edited transcript of our lively conversation, along with research conducted by scholars Paul C. Avey and Michael C. Desch into how policymakers and academics see each other. We’ve also included data on another vexing issue: the limited influence of women who research and write about foreign policy, relative to their male counterparts — a problem that our panelists flagged and that was pointedly illustrated by the fact that eight of the nine were men.

We hope this discussion shows how academics do and do not impact foreign policy — and what needs to change.


J. PETER SCOBLIC: We’re here today to talk about the role of academia in the study and the making of foreign policy — how relevant the academy is, how it sees its own role, and how policymakers in turn see it. Bruce Jentleson and Jim Goldgeier, since you have been running a project called Bridging the Gap, which works on linking academia with policymaking, why don’t you start?

JAMES GOLDGEIER: Well, I think you have to distinguish between disciplinary departments — like political science, history, and economics, which have gone off in directions that aren’t necessarily conducive to connecting with the policy community — and the international affairs schools, which typically have both faculty and students who are eager to be engaged in the policy community. I also do believe that younger faculty today — and I think we’ve seen this really since September 11 — want to be more engaged and are looking for ways to do that.

BRUCE JENTLESON: A lot of people get into this business of studying international relations because they care about the world, yet the socialization and the incentive structure in academia really pushes you to care more about the discipline. And so we are very realistic about that incentive structure, but we really try to capitalize on the first and sort of say we’re not trying to revolutionize the discipline, but a little insurgency wouldn’t be a bad thing.

We think, frankly, it takes away from the education we offer, including at the undergraduate level, to have gotten into this world where we only communicate with others in the discipline — where it’s all about methods and models. So part of the motivation is to better fulfill the mission universities have qua universities.

And we see benefits on the other side of the gap too. It’s not that academics necessarily have the answers, but they do bring into the mix of knowledge a certain perspective that can be useful to policymakers.

SCOBLIC: Steve, the Kennedy School is an international affairs school, but I get the sense that there are still pressures on junior faculty to write for their academic discipline as opposed to a general policy audience.

STEPHEN WALT: The first point I would make is that academic disciplines are self-policing. They decide what the norms and incentives are that are going to be rewarded. So if international affairs or political science or public policy schools wanted to have a different set of metrics and a different set of criteria for evaluating faculty, they could decide to do that. Second, one of our criteria for promotion is in fact contributions to public policy or public management. We explicitly in a tenure review have to say, “Has this person’s work had any impact, either things they’ve done in their scholarly work or things that they have actually done by participating directly in government?” So by essentially creating a certain set of criteria, we are telling junior faculty at a school of public policy, “We’d like you to be engaged.”

Now, in practice, does that mean every junior faculty has had a big impact? No. I think that we still tend to weight academic contributions for junior faculty more highly than other forms, but you could imagine that set of criteria becoming more widely followed throughout the discipline.

I’d just add a couple of other things. When you are evaluating someone for tenure, look at how often they are cited, but also look at how often they are mentioned in LexisNexis. If they work, say, on terrorism, don’t just go to a dozen terrorism scholars and ask what their work is like. Talk to a few people in Washington who work in that area and ask if they ever heard of this person’s work, has it ever made any particular contribution. Sometimes the answer will be no, and you might still think the work is very good. But sometimes the answer would be yes, and you would want that information if you were judging someone for promotion.

Ed: click here for source information

SCOBLIC: So what is the sense of the Kennedy School’s impact on policymaking?

WALT: I think the Kennedy School has had a lot of impact, as much by its faculty who then participated in government, people like Joe Nye and others, and by people getting involved directly as advisors and consultants. In some areas, I think our scholarly work has had a big impact.

I think many academics have a mistaken view of how policy impact is achieved. They think they will write one book, they will write one article, people will read it, decide it’s brilliant, and immediately change. And what’s really required, even if you’ve got terrific research and a great set of insights, is an enormous amount of persistence. Once you have the idea, you can’t just put it out there. You have to be willing to shop it. You have to be an entrepreneur of your own ideas. And that’s something it seems to me most academics aren’t really trained to do and aren’t inclined to do.

IAN JOHNSTONE: The distinction between a school of international affairs and traditional graduate departments is important, because at schools of international affairs there’s a spectrum of things that faculty do. Some are closest to traditional academic work, and some are much further away. There’s got to be a mix. And so some are pure academics; others are much more on the public intellectual side. But I think the incentives have to be in place to cultivate that whole range of functions.

SCOBLIC: Bob, when you were in government, what, if anything, did you draw from your own Ph.D. and from academics who were trying to feed material to you?

ROBERT GALLUCCI: Peter, I desperately want to answer your question.

SCOBLIC: But you’re not going to.

GALLUCCI: Not exactly.


GALLUCCI: I don’t know if my body language gave it up, but I was a little uncomfortable with your prior conversation. There are at least two bodies of conversation we could have. One is the discipline-policy school conversation. For me, the tragedy of that mismatch to me hasn’t yet been put on the table, and I want to put that on the table. And then the second part, which I know we all want to talk about, is whether the policy schools are doing what the people in government would have them do to prepare their students for government service, which is more your question.

First part: The way I would capture it is that there is a mismatch between all the talent that goes into the discipline-based departments — the political science departments, the government departments — and the policy schools, like Kennedy and Georgetown. It is the difference between the APSIA schools — the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs — on the one hand. And on the other hand, the really talented people who are working on things that I would say are really remote from things that matter in the real world. Some of the very best undergraduates and graduate students in the country are doing work that has nothing to do with improving the human condition. Zero.

It’s an incentive situation, so people can have a career and teach. Is it good for policy people? No. They don’t come anyplace near any of those disciplinary journals — never will. It has zero impact, I would say, in any kind of direct way.

So what’s it for? Is it for education in some way? Advancing the science of the discipline in some way? Maybe. But I can’t believe, given where we are in education in the country, that’s a good use of educational money, on the one hand, and, two, all that talent, because as Bruce said, a lot of these young people in these programs want to actually have an impact on the human condition.

As for government, the first thing that government people want in international affairs is regional expertise. I’m sorry to tell you all this, but the first thing they want is somebody who knows something about the country where the problem is, and the problem never happens in the “international system.” In government, they don’t know what the international system is, but they sure know what Brazil is, and they want somebody who speaks Portuguese, because that’s all they know. So I would say the first thing is let’s save regional studies, because it clearly needs to be saved.

And then after that, there is a functional expertise, depending on what you do for a living in government. If you are a security person, it would be nice if someone knew something about not only the region, but also if it’s military, if it’s nuclear, if it’s development, or whatever.

A deep third is someone who can write the front piece of the memo. The front piece of the memo is the one that tells the decision-maker how this issue fits within the context of America’s foreign policy and America’s interest. It’s good if you have someone who has at that point some grip on the history of American foreign policy, on America’s interest in the world, understands the international system, understands that there may be different drivers now than there were 20 years ago.

Ed: click here for source information

SCOBLIC: Give me an example of the kind of work that does not improve the human condition, that is just locked in the ivory tower.

GALLUCCI: I would say that if you are overly concerned about models and structures and you are insistent on operating at the systemic level, you’re less likely to be writing stuff that is going to be easily understood as relating to a policy problem. There are thoughtful people in government who — yes, they read Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy — but they will also read International Security. In other words, they can actually read an academic journal if the journal is interested in real scholarship that impacts the policy world they live in. I think if you opened up the American Political Science Review, you would see lots of pieces that no one in the policy world would dream of looking at. There is a whole lot of work and a whole lot of schools where I think there are a whole lot of very talented people who are being incentivized to do work that is not helping people, and that’s my gripe.

SCOBLIC: Cecilia, do you want to take a crack at what Bob said? He may have let Woodrow Wilson off the hook there, it being a policy school, but what’s your reaction?

CECILIA ROUSE: You’re right that the Kennedy School and the Woodrow Wilson School got off the hook, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with these issues.

My own view is that the six years to get to tenure is really short in the life of a scholar and that I know I spent a lot of that time learning new things, learning new tools — things that if I were trying to play in the policy world at the same time, I would not have had the time to do. So I think the six years of the junior faculty time is a time of investment. Then, with the security of tenure, one has time, and one does have an obligation in a policy school to then break out of the academy and say, “Well, what does this have to do with the real world?” I mean in a more public way. I personally think that there’s plenty of time for them to do that after they have tenure.

PETER COWHEY: I’m with Celia in the sense that I think that junior scholars really are in a position where, if you want the really bright people who in the long term can contribute to policy but have risen to a disciplinary system, you’ve got to allow them to invest in their disciplinary skills.

That said, I think there are some things that we can do to take advantage of changes that are going on. One — this sort of new empiricism, where the use of massive new data sources and techniques is creating possibilities for doing research that’s really quite breathtaking and tends to break out of a lot of the conventional boxes that we’ve been in. We invest, for example, in something called a “Policy Design and Evaluation Laboratory” [at the University of California, San Diego] in order to allow those scholars who do field research and evaluation and who design public policy interventions to do their work faster and cheaper — because the people in, say, USAID, want answers in two years, and the valuation techniques traditionally take four or five. So there is a big mismatch.

JAMES LEVINSOHN: I think it was Steve who said that the academic disciplines are self-policing. That’s right, and for better or worse, I feel like that we have to take that as a given. At least I don’t believe that I can have any real impact on how the disciplines evaluate people.

Given that, it changes the time frame in which I think about trying to have an impact. If you are willing to take a slightly longer time frame, one of the ways in which I think all of us can have an impact is by training the next generation and equipping them with the tools that are really needed — with language skills, with regional expertise, with the sets of quantitative tools that they need. But it’s not an impact that shows up in the policy debate right away.

JAMES REARDON-ANDERSON: I’d like to pick up particularly on Bob’s comments on area studies, because I don’t think it’s too strong to say that we consider area studies in crisis at Georgetown. Partly it’s a generational crisis, and it’s partly a disciplinary crisis. We have five area studies master’s programs, and we are facing the possibility of an inability to staff those as the generations move on.

I would say, crudely, economics, to my experience, has almost entirely abandoned this as a focus of professional rewards. There are some disciplines, particularly history, that remain essentially rooted in area studies. Anthropology, as well. But the change that concerns me most is in political science, and as we see the senior ranks of the area-trained political scientists begin to face retirement, we are very concerned about recruiting a next generation of people who are really rooted in area studies.

It’s less true of China. I’d say the places where we’re most concerned are Russian and Eastern European studies and Latin American studies. We are still able to recruit people in the Middle East, but elsewhere it’s increasingly difficult.

JENTLESON: Two quick things. On area studies, I totally agree. There is sort of this talismanic view of the world in Washington — everything revolves around us, right? And I think we see this pattern on both sides of the gap — not enough sense of really understanding the world.

The other thing is, the goal seems to me to be how can one operate with what’s considered in the discipline — i.e., for tenure and promotion — and do work that is scholarly but is policy-relevant.

Some of it is methods. If you look at a curriculum in undergraduate or graduate, there are a finite number of courses people take. And there is a tension between how much goes to methods and how much goes to history, regional studies, language, et cetera. My concern — and I think this affects a lot of the APSIA schools, too, frankly — is that methods are taking up too much of that turf. So we have people who say, “Well, of course, I don’t really know that much about these parts of the world. My model still works.”

We want people to write these grand-theory articles. But a lot of us worked with and were inspired by Alexander George, and he always used to talk about middle-range theory, right? So, for example, if you’re looking at economic sanctions against Iran, it is probably useful to know from the literature maybe the six or eight factors that are most likely to make them effective — not just two factors, but not 50 factors either. And I don’t think middle-range theory is rewarded in the discipline as much as grand theory.

GOLDGEIER: Jim Levinsohn’s point was correct, in my view. The biggest impact we have is not necessarily directly tying the research to policymakers but in training the next generation. The people who are policymakers in this town, they went to school somewhere. They learned about the world somewhere. So what we do to get them excited so that they want to study countries and regions is important.

Ed: click here for source information

SCOBLIC: Bob, you got a doctorate at Brandeis. Did you develop a worldview that you brought into government?

GALLUCCI: I was a TA my first year of graduate school for Ken Waltz. What an opportunity that was — to spend all your time, your first year, with arguably one of the greatest international political theorists. Did that have an impact on my mind? Yes. Even my mind got impacted.

Remember I talked about the first paragraph you write in those memos? The frame I took to the first paragraphs was a structural realist frame: The system itself is the first thing you look at. So that’s my take on it, and it’s quite different from other theoretical approaches that assume different things about what drives international affairs.

So the short answer is absolutely yes, and there’s a place for that. And it’s extremely important, particularly, I would say, at the undergraduate level. You better give them that kind of theoretical way of coping with this complex mass of information, which is only growing, in the international system.

WALT: I want to be a little bit more critical of the public policy schools for a second, because this conversation has tended to valorize them and criticize the disciplines. Let me make two complaints about the public policy schools or international affairs schools.

One is, I think, many of our schools use an obsolete model. The standard model of a public policy school will teach people some microeconomics, teach them some statistics, teach them something we call policy analysis, maybe give them a little bit of leadership, and then they can dabble in a bunch of other areas. This is a model that’s been around for 30, 35 years.

It shortchanges history. We don’t generally teach history in public policy schools. We should. It shortchanges law. Nobody gets out of a public policy school understanding very much about law, either international or domestic.

I think you could — and particularly in the international affairs area — actually do a sort of root-and-branch rethinking of the public policy, international affairs curriculum that would put much more emphasis on history, much more emphasis on regional expertise, much more emphasis on law, and you would end up getting people who weren’t the perfect OMB budget analyst but might be actually a much more effective policy analyst.

Problem No. 2 is public policy schools have one danger that disciplinary departments don’t have, and that’s the danger of co-optation. The great virtue of academic institutions is that they are independent. They can be creative, original, dissident voices.

Public policy schools, because they like to live pretty close to power and live pretty close to the policy world, are in more danger of being co-opted. If you’re an academic who is thinking you would like to work for the next administration, you may pull a lot of punches in that next article. You think you’d like to write something critical of Hillary Clinton, but you know what — she might be the next president, and there goes your appointment as assistant secretary for whatever. And because we like being close to power, because we’d like our students to be able to get jobs, public policy schools have, I think, a much greater danger of being essentially co-opted by the world that, at least part of the time, we ought to be criticizing.

One final point about this. We never have a conversation in graduate school about the ethics of the business — the question that Bob raised at the very beginning. What is our ethical responsibility to the society at large that supports us and subsidizes us in all sorts of ways? What’s our responsibility as scholars to be giving back, to be making some kind of positive contribution?

JOHNSTONE: One of the problems with the disciplines and a methodology-driven approach to research is it narrows the range of questions you can ask. If you are trying to answer a question that fits a certain methodology, that puts a lot of questions off the table, and some of them are big, important questions.

And this sort of gets to the risk of co-option here. Your tendency is to want to try to answer those questions in a way that is going to be useful for policymakers, but you may shortcut the research because you think, “Oh, I can probably come up with a little evidence that is going to anecdotally answer that question,” and that’s going to resonate somewhere in the policy world, but you are not being true to your academic credentials in doing that.

SCOBLIC: Dana, you are a staffer here at Foreign Policy and perhaps have considered graduate school. What’s your question from the perspective of a potential student?

J. DANA STUSTER: I was wondering if you’ve noticed from where you sit any change in the merits of master’s degrees and Ph.D.s. When I came to D.C. — and the advice I’ve persistently been given by an older generation — is, “Oh, if you want to do policy, you get a terminal master’s, and that’s what you need. You don’t want a Ph.D. because then you will be shoehorned into academia, even going through the policy school route.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. I interned at a place where now every single person that interns there, trying to get entry-level positions, has a master’s degree already. What does it take to break into policy, and is the merit of these degrees shifting?

GOLDGEIER: Part of the issue in recent years has been a job market that’s so challenging that folks who are going out on the market with a B.A. are applying for jobs that folks with an M.A. are also applying for, and so employers are saying, “Well, I’ve got somebody who has got an advanced degree.”

On the Ph.D., I think the reason things are changing is, again, because the academic job market has been so challenging that most programs offering a Ph.D. — even the highest-ranked departments that often judge themselves by their ability to place people in tenure-track academic positions — recognize that the range of options for doctoral students has to become much broader, so that they are successful after going through a Ph.D. program.

GALLUCCI: If you want to work in academia, do not get a policy-based degree. Get a discipline-based degree. That was true 10 years ago, and I think it’s true this morning, because our own schools are prejudiced against policy schools, against policy-based Ph.D.s.

If you want to go into government and you are a woman, I have been arguing for a long time that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a Ph.D. Even after years of the State Department responding to legal action and doing certain things, I still think that embedded somewhere in the hearts and minds of those guys was a prejudice, and a woman needed an extra boost to be competitive in some contexts. Now, my information is 20 years out of date in government service, so I really don’t know, but I worry that it might still be good advice.

SCOBLIC: That segues into something I’ve been wanting to ask throughout this conversation. This is a very male-dominated group. Building on Bob’s point, is there a problem with getting more women into foreign policy, into IR [international relations], and then into positions of responsibility and leadership within the academy that you feel is not being addressed?

REARDON-ANDERSON: In the last five years, we’ve hired 12 assistant professors, nine of whom are women. We’ve hired five associate professors, five of whom are men. So I see a big difference between the entry-level academics, who, based on their own qualifications and merits, are disproportionately women, and the advancement routes to tenure which tend to weed them out and weed the men in.

Ed: click here for source information

SCOBLIC: Cecilia, can I ask you to speak to this as a woman who is now leading one of the top public policy schools?

ROUSE: I think we struggle with it here. We do have a professor who is very strong who is doing IR, and we have other tenured faculty that work in IR. But here in the Woodrow Wilson School, there’s more focus on security — that’s our policy manifestation of many of these issues. We are looking for ways to increase the number of applicants among women in our ranks. I hear about more women being interested, but we’re struggling with it a little bit here.

COWHEY: Two quick points. The first is that, in the last six or seven years, we’ve clearly seen a maturing of the pool of women coming out of the assistant level that is really quite remarkable. The second point is that this issue of long-term advancement — not so much I think to tenure, but towards leadership positions — remains a central problem. And we shouldn’t be surprised because it’s exactly the same problem we’ve seen in major law firms, where the entry-level classes into the associate positions are predominantly women, but when you get to the long-term shareholding partners, the number drops sharply. So I think we have a long-term structural issue to be addressed.

GOLDGEIER: The vast majority of our Ph.D. students are women. You are seeing a lot of women going into the field, and schools want to be hiring more women. So, I do think we are seeing a change.

I do think there is the need for really strong mentorship for women moving up the ranks. And I find that at the associate professor level, a big issue is that women academics are much more likely to be willing to do service in their schools or departments. It’s easy for them to get trapped into contributing a lot of service, taking away from their research, and that’s a problem I think schools really need to be focused on in order to ensure that these women move up through the ranks to full professor.

SCOBLIC: Before we close, I want to do a speed round of the top challenge that the policy schools need to address right now.

JOHNSTONE: The biggest challenge I think is keeping up with the pace of global change without sacrificing analytical rigor; in other words, staying ahead of the curve in terms of the issues that need to be addressed, but not doing it in a way that just stops doing serious research.

A little more specific is putting some meat on the bones of this notion of interdisciplinary research, figuring out what that means. We all talk about how important it is, and I’m not sure we’ve figured out exactly how to make that real.

JENTLESON: Two quick things. One is the cost of graduate education. Second, I think it’s the fundamental problem of global cooperation. All the liberal internationalists said, “Oh, it’s all going to come together. It’s a collective-action problem, and we’ll just solve it.” I don’t think we know much about how to get nation-states to cooperate. I think that’s a fundamental problem that affects pandemics, climate change, terrorism, proliferation, et cetera.

GOLDGEIER: Two points. One, for the international affairs schools, really being able to make clear to prospective students why they should go into those schools versus getting a law degree, a business degree, or even an MPP [master of public policy], where the curricula for those schools is much more clearly defined. There’s a lot more heterogeneity among the international affairs schools. Thinking about what a real strong international affairs curriculum should look like, as Steve was talking about earlier, is important to do.

Second, in the ’80s, we did a great job bringing together scientists and social scientists to study issues like nuclear weapons. Climate, cyber issues, we have to be bringing them together, the climate scientists and the social scientists. We have to be bringing together the computer scientists and the social scientists on these big issues, the way we did at the end of the Cold War.

WALT: For the schools, it’s avoiding irrelevance while maintaining a critical, independent stance and, second, convincing students that it’s still worth the money to come here. In terms of policy issues, I’d say it is unwinding the post-9/11 security hysteria in the United States, without going too far, climate change, and the rise of China.

ROUSE: I would say it’s interventional. I would say that it’s helping to do research, but helping it to break out of the academy. In terms of issues, I completely agree that there are so many big issues where bringing together the social science with the technical side is very important — cyber, climate, health.

LEVINSOHN: In terms of curriculum, we have been building links with law, been putting history into the core curriculum, strengthening language requirements. I tend to want to double down on all of those.

COWHEY: We’ve made a couple of bets. The first is that the interaction of science, technology, engineering, and medicine with international policy is at the center of the next vortex. On the other side, I think that the long-term shift in the world because of the dispersion of economic growth and technological know-how is so fundamental that our ways of even knowing how to cooperate aren’t properly framed. They’re all still based out of the 1945 institutions, and that is not going to cut it.

GALLUCCI: For the policy schools, I think getting that balance right between a very high-quality core to the program and then a very tailored approach to the individual student that fills in the gap between what they’re capable of and what they know and what they want to do next.

SCOBLIC: Thank you all so much for this great conversation.


In crafting strategy for Afghanistan, did General David Petraeus consult the American Political Science Review? What’s the ideal résumé for a State Department staffer? These are the types of questions that scholars Paul C. Avey and Michael C. Desch set out to answer in a survey of 234 current and former senior government officials. Their findings, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of International Studies Quarterly and are previewed below and in the pages ahead, provide a window into the role of academics in foreign policy. 

A recent report by the OpEd Project—an organization dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices in the public domain—documented the relative frequency with which men and women are published on a range of subjects. 

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