Academia, Incentives, and The Secret to Unleashing Intellectual Capital- Responding to Nicholas Kristof
In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has just thrown down the gauntlet for academics:
Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.
Academics used to matter, but they don’t matter as much as they used to. The question is why? I think there are three sets of reasons. Partly, this has to do with the incentives within professional academia, partly it is related to the recruitment pool for academics, and partly it has to do with the ever-widening range of non-academic sources of deep knowledge that has been made accessible through new technology (think tanks, rise of NGOs, blogosphere, free access to high quality information). I’ll say something about the first two since the third is pretty obvious.
Incentives Within Academia
The core problem is one of incentives within academia: Academic prestige/tenure/promotion is based purely on publications. On the surface, this seems like a fair way of gauging merit. But it means that everything else that professors do tends to run a distant second (teaching, administration and service, public engagement). Given the fierce competition for academic posts these days, no one is going to give up their research time for public engagement (unless s/he enjoys doing it) if they don’t already have tenure. (For adjunct professors/temporary lecturers who live from paycheque to paycheque with no job security, the situation is even more precarious. See Corey Robin’s excellent post on this aspect of the problem.) Writing specialized journal articles will win every time because our careers depend on it.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
If the powers that be really want public engagement then they need to explicitly include this in their criteria for tenure & promotion. Even requiring a token op-ed in a newspaper would send an important signal. Of course, there is the caveat that public engagement is not relevant for all disciplines or within a discipline- but for disciplines like politics, you would think that most of us would want to engage with a wider audience beyond the boundaries of specialized journals.
The Recruitment Pool for Academia
Regarding who is most likely to become an academic these days, there are a couple of important trends. First, in my own discipline of politics, fewer “public intellectual” types are being drawn to academia than used to be the case. Instead of doing a PhD, many of these people are joining think tanks, opting to work for NGOs or international organizations, heading to tech start-ups or management consultancies, or occupying the social entrepreneur space. These are options that just didn’t exist twenty years ago. The bottom line is that many of those with the inclination and the smarts to become academics have chosen to do other things now that there are so many interesting (and well-paid!) career options. Second, the culture of politics as a academic discipline has also changed significantly in the past twenty years.
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
If you think about academia as an exclusive club that many, many people want to join, it becomes possible to see that key gatekeepers (journal editors, tenured faculty at the Top 10) hold a lot of power. If gatekeepers want to set an exclusive and difficult-to-penetrate research agenda for the discipline, they can readily do so in choosing the kinds of articles that get published in top journals, the kinds of PhD projects they are willing to supervise, and the kinds of work that they consider to be “groundbreaking”. This isn’t just about rebels being crushed or driven away, as Kristof alleges, but rather that the rebels are no longer drawn to academia in the first place because the kinds of narrow research questions that are being asked today don’t excite them. Further, the pressures to publish can be severe enough that if your research falls outside of disciplinary norms, your work risks being marginalized- with all of the consequent career implications. Namely, you’re highly unlikely to make it into the profession in the first place. These dynamics shift the academic recruitment pool in a certain direction. [See this post comparing academia to drug cartels from a King’s colleague, Alexandre Afonso.]
Academic Superstars & the Hyper-Engaged
For younger scholars, I would say that even though Kristof is mostly right about the broad lack of public engagement, he has also omitted the story of the superstar academics. Just within the realm of politics and international relations, Twitter, MOOCs, the blogosphere, and TED talks have created academic superstars out of people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, Chris Blattman, Daniel Drezner, and Saskia Sassen. I can also name dozens upon dozens of hyper-engaged academics who blog, tweet, and engage in policy-making. (Here are just a few: Laura Seay, Lesley Warner, Roland Paris, Severine Autesserre, Susanna Campbell, Rob Ford, Thomas Rid, Lawrence Freedman, Jeff Colgan, Stephen Saideman, Jennifer Welsh, Dominik Zaum, Jeni Whalan, Daniel Drezner, Lee Jones, never mind widely read blogs like The Monkey Cage, Political Violence at a Glance and Duck of Minerva. The list goes on and on. Did I mention that half of my department at King’s is active on Twitter?)
As with the rest of the labour market, those who go the extra mile to engage publicly will mean that they can reap the reputational returns on a global scale. For these hyper-engaged academics, the rewards are more likely to come in the form of public and disciplinary influence rather than pay increases.
Academic Rigor and Relevance
A few more thoughts: I don’t think you need to give up academic rigor in order to do interesting, accessible, and relevant research. We shouldn’t conflate rigorous with being inaccessible/uninteresting/irrelevant. There does not need to be a trade-off here as implied by Rubin Ruiz-Rufino. The problem may be more in how “rigorous” is defined- an altogether separate discussion. Disciplinary “rigor” could still mask other problems:
After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.
Separately, we need to gauge “relevance” with caution. Just because a subject is obscure today does not mean that it should not be studied nor does it mean that the quality of scholarship is poor. Way back in 2000, how many politics scholars in the West could even pick out Afghanistan on a map, never mind offer us insights into Afghan politics, culture, and society? Afghanistan was about as obscure a subject as you could imagine, and yet Barnett Rubin had persisted in following Afghan politics for decades…. Another example: Back in 2007, Shadi Hamid presented his doctoral project on the Muslim Brotherhood at Nuffield College’s Graduate Politics Seminar in Oxford. At the time, it seemed like an interesting if slightly obscure topic. And then came Tahrir Square.
If obscurity is not the problem, neither is the impenetrability of the discipline in and of itself (as Steve Saideman argues here). The problem is the MIX. Right now, the obscure and impenetrable seem to dominate many of the discipline’s key institutions. As I said to Steve, I think that rigor is still being prized over relevance. In short, it is more advantageous to formulate an airtight argument to a narrow and mildly interesting research question rather than to offer a thoughtful (but not airtight) argument to a much more compelling question. [Interestingly, I think the gap between academia-policy-public is much smaller in the UK as compared to North America.]
Unlocking Academia’s Intellectual Capital
While my sense is that younger scholars in my discipline of politics are happily engaging more with the public via social media and other forums, it’s clear that there is a tremendous amount of intellectual capital that is trapped within the ivory towers because the incentives aren’t strong enough to unlock it. For politics departments, I have one small recommendation: Require extended abstracts for all publications that are submitted as part of tenure and promotion/probation processes. Ask for 750 word executive summaries with key findings in layman’s terms. This minor addition would make scholarly studies much more useful and readily accessible without changing what people study or how they decide to study it. In the long run, this is the kind of change that will tilt the balance in favour of public engagement and put politics scholars back at the heart of public discourse- where they belong.