Revisiting Kristof’s Criticism of Academic Irrelevance

by D.E. Wittkower, Evan Selinger and Lucinda Rush

ScreenHunter_720 Jul. 07 18.46Some time has passed since Nicholas Kristof published his controversial Op-Ed “Professors, We Need You!“, and the time is ripe for us to approach the issue afresh. After briefly revisiting the controversy, we’ll offer some thoughts about how to promote public engagement by changing academic cultures and incentives.

When Kristof’s Op-Ed came out back in February, it provoked widespread discussion about whether academics—particularly in the social sciences and humanities—are socially relevant. Much of the heat stemmed from Kristof’s biting central claim: “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.”

Rebuttals to Kristof came swiftly and appeared in different venues.

The New York Times itself published critical responses that highlighted the existence of socially relevant academic contributions in lots of places, including “use inspired research” and “blogs, TED talks, congressional and expert-witness testimony, support of social movements, advice to foundations, consultation with museums, summer programs for schoolteachers and work with prisoners.”

This crucial point that a wider net needs to be cast for defining ‘engagement’ was expressed elsewhere, too. Undeniably, counter-examples abound, including in high profile fora. “Kristof need only open the pages of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Boston Review, The American Conservative, Dissent, The American Prospect.” Indeed, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that there’s actually robust public academic engagement occurring. “Spend a few hours reading news and opinion pieces, surfing interesting blogs, or dipping into conference-based hashtags on Twitter, and you will find academic voices speaking out—everywhere.”

Shortly after Kristof’s piece ran, the hashtag #EngagedAcademics gained traction on Twitter. Its creator Chuck Pearson lamented that when Kristof wrote about academics he was referring to “research one schools,” and perpetuating an argument predicated upon undue, elitist assumptions: “It still assumes that academics are those pipe-smoking, office-dwelling, masses-disdaining figures from another place. In other words—as the New York Times is so prone to do, when talking about higher education—it assumes that regional universities and state colleges don’t exist. It assumes that teaching-centered liberal arts colleges don’t exist. It assumes that most church-affiliated schools don’t exist. Good heavens, don’t even speak of the community colleges. And it assumes that everyone who could possibly serve as a public intellectual is a FULLPROF or is on the path to FULLPROF status. Non-tenure-track instructors? Visiting professors? God forbid, adjuncts?”

Finally, beyond the questions over whether Kristof was missing all the action happening right in front of him, some worried that asking academics to be more relevant might very well be a tacit invitation to requesting they avoid rocking the boat with controversial assertions: “. . . if ‘relevance’ means becoming mouthpieces of our new ruling class, then Kristof can keep it.”

Okay. Lets accept the fact that there’s more public engagement going on than Kristof acknowledges. And, let’s concede that public engagement can be a fraught process, with some venues favoring apologetics for the status quo or blunt ideologies that would benefit from nuance. But if public participation can be socially useful and potent contributions can come from the portion of academics who are working tenure track and tenured positions at institutions that place a premium on research, then we need to take seriously Kristof’s concerns about institutional culture. While many responses emphasized the lack of incentive structures, questions still remained about how to “make public engagement count,” not least in instances where something that is obvious to academics is counter-intuitive to people out of the ivory tower.

Because this is an important question and it is receiving less attention now that the initial indignation against Kristof’s piece has faded, we want to revisit it. We recently published anarticle (see here, or here) on reforming incentive structures to support broader engagement in the context of philosophy of technology. Our proposal—which begins with a plea to recognize three basic things, and proceeds from there to advance specific suggestions for reform—can be more generally applied.

1. We must recognize the value of quality, rigorous open-access publications—those that engage in peer review, under quality editorial boards, and without charging authors fees. Many fields in the natural sciences, most notably physics, have long ago integrated open-access publication into their culture and gained significant publicity from attention to open access articles.

Unfortunately, open-access journals tend to be newer and less well-known than established closed journals put out by the big publishing houses. Consequently, when our colleagues choose open access publications, they’re basically taking one for the team: accepting a less prestigious CV line in order to advance the profession and the greater good. We should recognize that these publications have added value as a benefit to the profession, and should take care that faculty who choose open-access publication are valued for this choice rather than disadvantaged.

2. We must recognize that public writing can advance collaboration. Although lots of lip service is given to the importance of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, the tragic truth is that limited public outreach limits awareness of what folks from other fields are up to.

3. We must recognize that public writing isn’t synonymous with popularizing research—a bias that justifies relegating public engagement to the (comparative) dustbin of service. To counter this tendency, more people need to recognize that research is broad and complex affair. To do justice to its nuances, we need to support the use of categories like “scholarship of application” and “scholarship of engagement” for promotion and tenure.

In order for this overdue recognition to become reality, we need professional, institutional, and cultural reform.

Professional Reform

Professional organizations put out statements on professional expectations, and professors often include these declarations in their tenure and promotion files. Consequently, it would make a real difference—and not, as skeptics might allege, simply be a symbolic gesture—if organizations clearly and directly emphasized the importance of public engagement.

Other kinds of professional reform may be possible as well. We recently submitted a proposal to the journal Techné—a top journal in philosophy of technology—asking for a new category of publication to be created for public philosophy. These general audience publications would go through post-publication peer review, with accepted articles being republished in the journal. While such a publication shouldn’t carry the same weight as a research article, this change in the journal’s publication categories would communicate to promotion and tenure committees that engagement in public and policy debate is a legitimate scholarly activity in our field.

Institutional Reform

Public engagement should be addressed by institutions’ strategic plans, in faculty handbooks, and in departmental statements of expectations for tenure and promotion. Faculty members who do not see the importance or value of leaving the ivory tower shouldn’t be penalized for choosing to speak only to other scholars. But if they object to including language supporting public outreach, the burden should be placed on them to justify restricting academic freedom and demeaning what many see as legitimate work.

Universities also should invest resources for training faculty to more easily communicate with the public. They should run ongoing workshops on how to pitch editors, write Op-Eds, speak with reporters, and manage social media. And when faculty succeed in writing for popular outlets, word should be spread around campus (including on channels directed to students), to alumni, and to the broader public through social media.

Cultural Reform

To change how academics think about public work, we need to change how we train and enculturate graduate students and new faculty. Sadly, until incentive structures are changed, it will continue to be good, responsible advice to tell graduate students and pre-tenure faculty to play it safe, keep their heads down, and publish in well-established peer-reviewed venues, even if it means that few will ever read or care about their work. Once the incentive structures are changed, however, we believe cultural reform will soon follow. But this only deepens the responsibility placed on senior faculty!

In the end, Kristof’s article might be problematic, but society is losing out because too many scholars keep too much to themselves. Since change requires more than a rallying cry, we’ve got to challenge the professional expectations that incline professors to seal themselves off from the rest of the world and devise institutionally sound strategies for encouraging academics to get their ideas out of the ivory tower.