Tue 5 Apr 2011
Naomi Schaefer Riley published a particularly stunning op-ed in the Washington Post on Friday asking “Should Professors be Political?” I am actually working on a response op-ed, because despite her framing of this piece as an effort to lay out the educational cost of academic political engagement, this op-ed is not really an argument about education as much as it is an effort to bottle up voices, viewpoints and evidence with which she disagrees in the “safe space” of the university classroom, where these ideas cannot do any harm by influencing society at large.
For example, Riley argues that University of Wisconsin professor William Cronin’s involvement with the Wilderness Society, an environmental organization working to (among other things) stop mining in the Otero Mesa of New Mexico, is an example of run-of-the-mill partisanship. Really? Certainly the arguments of the Wilderness Society are political insofar as they suggest policy directions, but what, exactly, is partisan about a concern for environmental quality? Hell, even the basically libertarian governor Appalachian Trail in SC was in favor of environmental protection. And what of the fact that the Wilderness Society’s claims are rooted in empirical evidence gathered through just the sorts of research that Riley otherwise sees as appropriate for academics, and therefore not rooted in a political agenda as much as in evidence about events in the world, and how they impact human beings.
Even more odd are Riley’s objections to Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute. How, in an era of budget cutting and calls for universities to demonstrate greater relevance to the taxpayers who support them, could one critique the Institute’s mission of acting as a “catalyst and model for interdisciplinary collaboration on environmental initiatives across departments, schools, and colleges, and including governmental, private, and non-profit entities”? Environmental challenges are complex, and require the collaboration of academics and policymakers across a set of institutions and disciplines. Good policy requires good data, and good data requires good research – so why not foster greater collaboration between policymakers and researchers, between politicians and academics? What, exactly, is Riley really concerned with?
Simply put, her concerns have nothing to do with educational quality, and in the end are not really about academic engagement with politics. Instead, they reflect a fear of a wider, clearer voice for academics with whom she does not agree. When she suggests that Cronin’s engagement with the Wilderness Society is run-of-the-mill political activism and partisanship, or complains that Ohio State’s African American and African studies department overtly sees its mission as contributing “ideas for the formulation and implementation of progressive public policies with positive consequences for the black community,” she is not-so-implicitly telling academics to get back into their ivory tower where their ideas will remain marginal to the public discourse. In a reversal of the old adage, she is arguing, “you teach, therefore you can’t.”
This argument for the traditional model for academic engagement, where the researcher’s responsibility for their data and findings ends with the publication of results, willfully distorts how science and other forms of inquiry are used in the political debates that shape the world and our quality of life. Research findings, no matter how rigorous or replicable, are not seen as truths in the political arena. They are just viewpoints, to be considered alongside other viewpoints, as political debates about policy unfold. If the findings of the academic enterprise are to be useful to society at large, academics have a responsibility to interpret their findings into policy, to make political arguments based upon their evidence. If we are not doing so, why are we doing research at all?
In short, the fact that some professors are politically engaged is nothing to lament. Indeed, far too few of my colleagues take up this challenge, with disastrous results for both policy and the academy. On one hand, excellent research, and fascinating research findings, never finds its way into the public or policy discourse, resulting in intellectually and even factually impoverished policy that has negative consequences? On the other, as academia becomes more and more divorced from the concerns and needs of those who support it with their tax dollars and tuition, it becomes harder to see what we need academics for, and easier to argue for ever-deeper cuts to higher education budgets. We need more public intellectuals, not less, if we are to continue as a robust, functional democracy.