Transforming Academia: From Silo to Vehicle for Social Change

By Stephan Manning.

There has been a lot of talk about the alienating nature of academic work. Nick Kristof argues in his recent New York Times article that academic research is increasingly irrelevant for public debates and that public intellectuals have become a dying species. Academics are increasingly driven by the pressure to publish rather than by curiosity and the need to better understand the world we live in, as Suhaib Riaz points out in his recent blog. In a nutshell, academia has become a silo in which peer recognition counts the most, whereas making a broader impact is seen as a distraction. Given the enormity of unsolved social and environmental problems facing our planet, we need to re-embed academia into society and turn it into a vehicle for social change. But how?

Making academia more responsive to the outside world is a challenge given the increasing degree of professionalization of academic work. Certainly, we can give such topics as inequality and social change higher priority by promoting special issues, focused conferences and seminars. Examples include the upcoming special issue on economic inequality in Human Relations and the special issue on hybrid organizations in the California Management Review. But there is a certain risk that these themes will soon be absorbed by the academic system. More and more academics will talk about these issues, but the audience is likely to be other academics who might appreciate the topic flavor, but whose willingness to listen and engage in these debates is strongly affected by professional codes, such as academic rigor and publishability. And this is certainly why, as Joshua Rothman put it in his recent post, ‘academic writing is so academic’.

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Therefore, while selecting meaningful topics is important, it is equally critical to expand the discourse beyond academia by addressing other audiences, such as journalists, opinion leaders in business and politics, and the general public. Especially in Europe, many academics still think of themselves as public intellectuals whose role goes beyond academic publishing and teaching. This blog and several others, such as The Conversation, the Crane and Matten blog, and Governance Across Borders, serve as important platforms for intellectual exchange. Many scholars also use radio, TV and TED talks to inform current debates. In addition, roundtables and public events at universities may stimulate conversations between academics, policy-makers and practitioners. But in the end, those forums primarily expand the talk, and the effectiveness of these conversations relies heavily on the rhetorical skills and political agenda of individual scholars. Is that all we can do?

There might be another, underutilized way of making academia more progressive and impactful: hiring and promotion policies. Many of us scholars are involved in recruiting new PhD students and faculty every year. And oftentimes – let’s be honest – it comes down to a simple question: can this person publish or not? It should be obvious that this selection mechanism will reproduce the very mindset that prevents academia from making a more important impact in this world.

Instead, I propose that hiring should be guided by: academic interest, mindset and experience outside academia. I was inspired by the recently told story about how our colleagues Pacey Foster and Marc Lavine found their way to UMass Boston. Both met long time ago as students of Peace and Global Studies (PAGS) – one of the oldest Liberal Arts programs designed to “prepare students to make a profound difference in the world”. After graduating, both Pacey and Marc went on to very different careers in the spirit of PAGS – Pacey became a consultant in alternative dispute resolution; Marc got engaged in development programs and various non-profit initiatives. Later on, both entered a PhD program at Boston College to expand their academic knowledge. Finally, Pacey and Marc, with some years in between, got hired as faculty members at UMass Boston. Their PAGS education and past professional experience influence their teaching, research and outside activities to this day. And they have passed on the same spirit to both students and colleagues like myself.

Yet, whether hiring people with a broader mind and skill set can make a difference also depends on how these qualities are valued within the academic system. Incentive structures and promotion policies play a big role here. For example, Adam Grant suggests in his recent article to offer different types of tenure: for research, teaching, and both. But there are pitfalls. Further specialization may lead to further disconnect between areas of expertise. If tenure is given for research only, will these scholars care about communicating to the outside world at all? Will tenure-track teachers care about latest research or public debates, or just about popular teaching materials? And why only teaching and research? One alternative could be to define baseline criteria for academic tenure, but encourage various forms of further contribution – outreach, public engagement, change projects with multiple stakeholders and so on. But then: Is every contribution similarly valuable? Are there any quality standards?

Turning academia into a vehicle for social change is not an easy undertaking. And it may require more than just selecting the right topics, reaching out to broader audiences, and hiring or promoting people with the right set of skills, mindset and experience. It may also be about promoting a new culture of academic work – driven by public rather than just scholarly debates, driven by real-world problems rather than scientific puzzles. And clearly, not all academics should be forced to become ‘social change agents’. Not every academic shares the same aspirations – and that’s good! But with knowledge comes responsibility. As a society, we cannot afford to maintain silos of exclusive and irrelevant knowledge production. I concur with Nick Kristof that we need academics to get more engaged – and it’s up to us academics to get things started. What do you think?

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17 thoughts on “Transforming Academia: From Silo to Vehicle for Social Change

  1. It is very true that there is a significant scope for the research carried out by the academia to be more practically oriented and directed towards the addressing the needs of the outside world. Addressing the issues of the outside world is lot more challenging and takes a lot of engagement with the outside world and results are dependent on the support from outside world towards this research. This may be one of the reason for this issue. Increasing the level of collaboration of universities with the business corporations and the government agnecies / NGOs who are trying to address a social isssue will be one way to direct the research towards more real issues. As you said the selection and rewarding criteria does not encourage external focus of the research and changing this can help address this issue. The academia has one of the brightest minds of the society and is contributing immensely to in the field of education. However there is opportunity for greater contribution towards the society by reassessing the area of research.

  2. Hi Professor Manning,

    I totally agree with you academics need to get more engaged. Any society contains a potential chain: science – technology – engineering – industry – economics – society. It not only involves the relationship between man and nature, but also involves the interests of different aspects such as interpersonal relationships, social, economic, cultural, natural, ethical factors.

    During the process of transforming academia, in my opinion, academic evaluation probably could be a good way to require the connection between academics and society. Effective academic evaluation can improve the academic vitality through the way of encouragement and advice. As one aspect of academic evaluation, social contribution should be considered while carrying out academic evaluation. It is not only an academic requirement, but also a responsibility for society. In addition, academic evaluation can better motivate researchers’ passion, inspiring creativity and initiative, rather than the publish pressure.

    Silu

  3. I think it is perfectly normal that social science journal articles are not that easily accessible to the general audience. Why should social scientists deny themselves the usefulness of a specialised and precise terminology? Nobody would ask that of natural scientists. I think this point has been well made by Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist who used the scientific terminology as a way to break with preconceived notions of how society works, in order to better understand it. His writing is unusually complicated but also unusually creative and reflective. As it happens, he also took active part in the public debate. Of course there are many less accomplished academics whose writing is as uninteresting as it is complicated, but that is not a reason to discard complex writing alltogether.

    I think of academia as a collective enterprise, forming an ecological system where there are and should be many niches and approaches for individuals. With a somewhat different metaphor – it is no problem if some researchers work as secluded mystics or even copists, illuminating texts conceived by others, as long as there are also more outgoing visionaries and prophets reaching out to wider society.

  4. Professor Manning and All Who Posted,

    I can’t claim anything original here. I can attest, as a PhD Student, to the immense institutional pressure to learn (Fast and Furious) how to write and produce within the strict confines of the rather insular academic publishing sphere (not exactly the best audience for “impact”). The amount of energy and focus required to do this renders little to no energy or time to get active and outreach beyond ivory tower walls. It seems that if some of this is to change, what “counts” will have to change. In a world of multimedia communication, it seems we may do well to “count” research and learning that is communicated through different mediums. If a connection with groups, organizations, and individuals outside of academia is what is called for, such relationships will need to “count” on a CV as much as a publication in a “respected” (by who?) journal.

    Nick

  5. If academics wish to become a force for social change, perhaps they should begin by examining some of the basic social and ethical issues recently raised by the collusion of various university administrators in the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of the author of “criminally” deadpan satire aimed, on its face, at exposing their own alleged misconduct. A department chairman from the principal institution involved even testified in court that “nobody reads” the faculty code of conduct of that institution. It is perhaps not that easy to become a force for social change when so much energy, even to the point of invoking the violence of the law, is being put into the suppression of unwanted criticism. Commenting on this effort, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has suggested that if certain academics “feel aggrieved by online speech with academic value,” they should seek a remedy through ordinary rebuttal (what is sometimes called,”more speech” in First Amendment cases) or through a civil lawsuit, rather than through criminal complaints, trials, and physical punishment of their critics. See the case documentation at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  6. Dear Professor,
    I totally agree with you we do need academics to get more engaged – and it’s up to us academics to get things started. For that to happen we need to build a bridge between pure academics and what happens on the ground in real life. For that to happen, I think that academics should stay engaged in society at work outside colleges by working part time in the domain they want to do their research and publication. This way their publications would be more meaningful and helpful in every-day life and people can use them in their jobs to improve what they do, instead of being just theories that only student would learn.

  7. Like Nicholas Kristof, we “deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses” and are dismayed that it is rarely shared outside of narrow academic disciplines. This challenge led us to create Footnote (http://footnote1.com), an online media company that collaborates with academics to translate their research and expertise for a mainstream audience.

In working with over 75 scholars from top schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, we’ve found that academics are eager to share their knowledge with the public and excited to discuss the implications of their research for policy, business, and society. What they need are platforms and partners to help them translate their expertise into a form that combines academic rigor with language and ideas the public can understand and engage with.

The incentives in academia encourage scholars to focus on communicating with a narrow audience of peers, but the drive to move beyond that and take up the mission of a public intellectual, even in a small way, is strong. It’s just not something we should expect academics to do alone.

  8. These are all great approaches to an important problem. In my experience, as a management-practitioner-turned-academic, the “real world” and the “academic world” are two very different places. I tend to think of academia as a divergent planet that speaks a different language and operates in an entirely different time zone (aka all hours of the night :). The culture shock I experienced making the transition from the practitioner world to the academic world was surprisingly alarming. I had no illusions that academia wouldn’t be different, but as an MBA graduate from a top program I thought the communication divide would be much smaller than in actuality. To return to my metaphor, I thought I was taking a short plane ride, not a spacecraft. I significantly underestimated what Kristof calls the “dreadful prose” and “arcane unintelligibility” I would need to learn.

    In my opinion, if academia – particularly in the field of management – wants to become more relevant, we will have to recognize we are the minority and assimilate into society. We can’t expect the public to learn our language. If we want to become public intellectuals, we’ll need to learn to speak their language and do so without the superiority complex that may come from what may feel like diluting our discourse. (“Discourse” – that’s a great example of a word used everyday in academia that is never used in the real world.) We must also find other ways to facilitate the translation. For instance, in other disciplines masters students are expected to learn the academic language and the theories that go with it. Today, MBA programs teach best practices, not theory, which I believe leads to the involuntary execution of management tasks rather than the thoughtful consideration of alternatives and their repercussions – in short, it leads to unethical practices. If we brought MBAs into our world, they could assist in translation. Another way to bridge the gap is to take Stephan’s advice and alter our recruiting practices. Past practitioner experience should be considered a benefit for a doctoral candidate, not an impairment.

    I am proud that our doctoral program in organizations and social change acknowledges and seeks to combat this growing relevancy issue. As a researcher of the nonprofit sector, I for one hope to maintain my links to the real world by interacting with practitioners on a frequent basis, valuing their input and experience as much as my own, attending non-academic workshops and conferences and searching for solutions along side them. It is a lot to do in addition to publish or parish, but I intend to try! Even better if we can relax the structural limitations of academia and begin valuing “real world” interaction.

  9. @Elke: Thanks and yes: Books are of course another way of – at least potentially – increasing impact. I am thinking of classics such as Porter’s Competitive Advantage of Nations. Porter’s major books have been cited 30,000 times each! But then of course Porter himself is a brand, and he is very good at developing and maintaining his status as guru and opinion leader. So yeah, maybe only 1% of all books published by academics actually do have an impact, but those 1% are talked about a lot. In fact, some economists in the U.S. have done this pretty well – and as Nick Kristof suggests, they are being heard. Think of figures such as Paul Krugman or Steven Levitt and his book Freakonomics. But also some business scholars have made an impact here, such as CK Prahalad with Bottom of the Pyramid… So it’s possible! :)

    @Eirik: That’s a good point although I am afraid some information will always get lost at the interface between research and journalism… And journalists operate in a different time frame. WIthin a few days they need to come up with something publishable, whereas academics take forever. What might ‘help’ is greater career mobility between academia and media – but to be honest, I don’t know many journalists with an academic background. These are different worlds, which is part of the problem.

    @Sonali: Very inspiring! Yes I totally believe that academic teachers who can take their students to real-world problem domains and have them study relevant stuff are gold. Teachers who can tell interesting stories, based on their own experience rather than textbooks, are equally important. I still remember my teacher in world economics who I admired the most because his knowledge was deeply embedded in experience as a development practitioner. So yes, I can totally relate to what you are saying.

    @Sabine: This is a brilliant example of how timely responses from academics to real-world issues can make a difference. And it also shows that academics can be a stakeholder in often complex constellations with different conflicting interests. And if, like in this case, academics represent the interest of the community and the greater public (vs. purely economic or political interests) this could be a role model for how academia can get more engaged.

    @Peter: I could not agree more. The good thing is that it’s really up to us academics to choose topics that are (more) relevant. And with that you can allow for a range of research – from very rigorous (and publishable in academic journals) to very practice-oriented. So, one step forward is always to select candidates who are not only able to publish but who publish interesting stuff on relevant topics… :)

    @Doris: Yes, climate change is a good example where research can be impactful. Our colleague David Levy, as you might know, is an expert in this domain and he has taken this role seriously by engaging in both academic and public debates. For example, he used to maintain his own blog Climateinc.org. He is now part of the editorial team of this Organizations and Social Change blog. But yes we need more of what you call ‘science communicators’.

  10. I am not sure if I am responding in the correct place, but I think there is
    a crying need for marketing and management professionals to take
    an active role in communicating to the general public the information
    that they need to know in order to understand and make the changes that may help us become more sustainable.

    A s an ethicist, teaching both Environmental Ethics and Moral Controversies, I have chosen to focus on the urgent issues of climate
    change, biodiversity loss, and social justice toward those nations
    likely to be worse impacted first by climate change,but contributing the
    least to it. My students are extremely responsive to learning the most
    recent information,but deeply discouraged that there is too little impetus to change in society at large,and also on the part of many
    federal, state or provincial , and often municipal governments– who
    often do not follow the most recent information, either.

    Science communicators are struggling with how to communicate the urgency of these issues. Marketing works on motivation, and it appears to be true that, in some cases, knowing information is not
    sufficient to produce a motivation to change ( even if the policy-maker
    actually believes the information and understands what it will mean).

    Teaming up with science communicators might be very helpful in
    providing ways to motivate the changes that we need to start making
    immediately, as well as changing older responses which have turned out to cause more harm than help ( cutting African and other rainforests to provide palm oil biofuels for EU countries is now recognized as extremely counterproductive as well as unjust– and
    of course there are a host of other examples of policies which are
    inefficient, such as cutting woodlots or woods in North America to
    provide pellets to burn in EU countries is also problematic, and
    of course Canada ‘s reliance on tarsands fuels as an economic engine
    means the Canadian federal government has no interest in moving
    to more sustainable energies).

    Currently a large part of the burden of sustainability has been transferred to citizens and consumers– but individuals rarely have much say in. how their electricity is generated, and coal generation
    is a problem in more than one way, since some studies now consider
    thst black carbon is the second major contributor to global warming.
    Many charities are working on providing high-efficiency cookstoves to
    LDCs which are off the electricity grid, but UNEP recommended in its
    2011 report that developed countries should stop contributing black
    carbon to the atmosphere pretty much immediately, and few initiatives
    in this vein seem to be occurring, with even fewer individuals aware of
    the problems posed by the continued production of black carbon as
    a short lived climate forcer, especially if they are in countries which
    suggested moving to burning wood as a carbon-neutral energy
    source ( but it could never be carbon- neutral unless no more is cut
    than has been grown in any one year, and, preferably, if it does not
    have to be transported to the site where it will be. be burned by
    a transport method involving fossil fuels).

    There are a host of ways in which marketing and management
    academicians could design projects that would also involve their
    students in such work,and many ways in which they can help
    NGOs and other organizations to motivate people to understand
    the rapidly coming changes.

    I hated having to tell my students that I was unaware of any solutions
    which will mitigate the massive changes coming to the world in their
    lifetimes. No one person can make a difference all alone, but everyone needs to help, and understanding the changes that need to be made is a first and vital step.

    By itself, it cannot be enough, though. And that would be where
    motivation comes in. It seems to me that marketing methods could
    be helpful at all stages of this process.

    You probably do not need more suggestions from me, but if there is
    anything more that I could contribute, please let me know.

  11. Dear Stephan Manning (and others),

    I very much like your thoughts. I hope that the academic rigor race, exemplified in publishing pressure rather than doing something real good for society (which I call ‘societal relevance’), is going to change. At the university in Gothenburg, Sweden, where I am working as a lecturer, this race is very obvious. We have two of three accreditations already (EQUIS, AMBA) and are looking for the third (AACSB) as well to achieve a Triple Crown accreditation. For that reason, recruitments on all levels almost solely are based on publishing merits (or for PhD students the potential to publish). Because salary improvement possibilities also are, to a large extent, dependent on how much you publish, academic rigor plays, from my view, a far too big role at the cost of relevance. In order to achieve a sustainable society, higher educational bodies, like for example the business school I am working for, need to find a balance between academic rigor and societal relevance, which also should be put into practice e.g. when employing new academics.

    Kindly,
    Peter

  12. Hi Stephan, as you rightly say, “in Europe, many academics still think of themselves as public intellectuals whose role goes beyond academic publishing and teaching”. One way for academics in Germany to make an impact on public life is by delivering expert assessments. In Berlin, for instance, a big medical company decided to close down a long-standing polyclinic (the famed “Haus der Gesundheit”) because of an alleged oversupply of medical services in the region. The local authorities seemed to go along with this, despite fierce protests by patients. Then, however, an expert study carried out by a university provided clear evidence, as against the company’s prognosis, that this step would endanger the medical supply for the predominantly elderly population in the service area. And this made all the difference: Suddenly both the mayor and the health officials now speak up emphatically to maintain the polyclinic.

  13. Dear Mr. Stephan,

    Where I come from, it is a step in itself that we have realized the root cause of the problem. In my opinion however, it is a basic need for human to stand out. Publishing your work promises a much wider audience than a simple classroom discussion. Hiring people with a much broader experience is one thing. Expecting that those people will not run into the race of getting published is another. We have to slightly bend the second part. It requires personality development of the teachers, more emphasis on exchange of ideas and encouraging public service. This can be done by actively engaging oneself and the classroom you teach, into the community. I still remember, one of our Moral Science teachers in high school, taking us to the slum area near our school and encouraging us to teach poor kids. I was in a batch of 60 students. All of those 60 students never forgot that class, and most of us try to give back to the community in one or the other way. If teachers can teach compassion, students learn compassion or anything else for that matter. That is how a teacher can impact a student’s life. This gives a way for social change. We have a spiritual guru in India called Sri Sri Ravishankar, who literally converted all those “religious songs” (that we sing for our Gods) into rap songs so that he can capture the youth of India. He teaches how to live, by his “art of living” course.
    Plus, change has to be a two way road. Students need to also broaden their minds as well to accept that change otherwise all our dreams of “huge impact” will remain dreams forever.

    Sonali

  14. Reblogged this on Fakta til folket and commented:
    Jeg har akkurat oppdaget en amerikansk blogg, som tar opp spørsmålet om hvordan akademia kan komme seg ut av elfenbenstårnet og tellekantene, og i større grad engasjere seg i reelle probmlemstillinger som har betydning for folk – og bidra til faktiske endringer.

    Se hva jeg skrev her.

  15. Dear Stephan,

    I support your views 100%. Unfortunately, I am not yet ‘an academic’ per se, I am still studying for my masters degree in vocational pedagogy (part-time, I am also a high-school teacher). So, I am not in a position to change academia from the inside – yet. However, I feel the same urge to make academic research count for something more. One of the benefits of reaching out could be an increased public awareness. Too many journalists are citing imprecise or even incorrect information, often based on sloppy conceptual clarity or ignorance (the source’s or the journalist’s, or even the PR/lobby-agency’s). The problem is that both politicians and the public might (and often will) base their understanding and opinion on it. I believe this is caused by a combination of factors, some of them might be; (1) We don’t have/make time to check the research behind the news-articles. (2) We trust the ‘experts’. (3) We are not willing to make necessary changes to our lifestyle. So, for academia to become a real change-maker I think the problem of the academic silo needs a range of solutions. Of course academics who have the urge and competence to reach out and communicate to the public should do that. In addition, the public needs to become aware that academic research is their tool for change. However, I think we have to break some rules. If we stay obediently inside the boundaries of academic, political and ‘democratic’ etiquette, I think we fail the very ideas of enlightenment and change that drove for instance the French revolution. I apologize for the political bias there, but I can’t help thinking that it is academia’s nature to always question established truths.

    Very best wishes,
    Eirik Kaasa Eliassen

  16. Hi Stephan,
    thank you for sharing your thoughts. I fully agree that widening the set of criteria against which academics should be evaluated against a baseline level of publication success would be a good idea. I think separating professors into researchs and teachers is really the wrong way to go, because good teaching is informed by research and cannot just revolve around the reproduction of textbook knowledge.
    Like you say, the relevance of research also depends on reaching wider audiences. As we know this does not happen through journal publications but through blogs, book publications, engagement with practitioners etc.
    Our discipline is probably the worst in subscribing to journal ranking automatisms of career evaluation. At least in Germany, book publications are considered as “Regalmüll” by most business scholars, i.e. as garbage – but presenting research results in a more palatable way in a book context is already quite a good way of reaching out to a wider audience and especially those of us that do empirical research (funded by tax money) should provide some form of output that is accessible to the public.
    So far I have not come across any good model of academic tenure that takes these aspects into serious consideration.
    Elke

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