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’.
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?