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Are Professors Avoiding the Public Square?

A columnist’s “yes” divides BU scholars

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Thomas Whalen was happy to discuss whether professors like him don’t talk to the public enough. He just needed a few minutes to tape an interview with New England Cable News.

He wishes more of his colleagues followed suit.

“I think they’ve kind of abdicated from…the battlefield of ideas,” says the College of General Studies associate professor of social sciences. Whalen’s opinion echoes a recent argument by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof bemoaning the withdrawal from public discourse by academics. The vanished profs, Kristof said, prefer publishing their insights in arcane scholarly journals and books.

Arguing that academics who are AWOL from the public square only fuel anti-intellectualism—like former presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s calling President Obama a snob for supporting greater college access—Kristof buttressed his case with one number: a drop in the percentage of American Political Science Review articles with policy recommendations, from 20 percent 70 years ago to 0.3 percent today. (One Georgetown University prof retorted that the American Political Science Association publishes policy recommendations in another journal.)

Kristof also quoted Harvard historian (and New Yorker contributor) Jill Lepore, a former College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor, who condemned scholarly articles and books as “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

The academy “erupted in outrage” over the column, Kristof reported on Facebook, where his post generated a second wave of amens and dissents.

Whalen says the aversion to the public square besets especially liberal-leaning scholars who imbibed the 1960s disenchantment with government as an agent of progressive change. “They’ve ceded it particularly to conservative thinkers and conservative think tanks,” he says. “If you put yourself in an ivory tower, how can you expect your ideas to gain traction among the general population?…You can take the moral high ground, but where does that get you?…Any healthy democracy needs the engagement of its intellectuals, whether it’s progressive or conservative.”

Others argue that the leading conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, has abandoned scholarship in favor of partisan flacking. Whalen counters that Obamacare, the fattest recent target for conservative ire, was actually based on a 1990s Heritage idea. And to the extent that Heritage has given up on scholarship, he says, it’s the kind of “institutional arrogance” that results from having had the public square to itself for so long.

Whalen himself has experienced academia’s frown on the hoi polloi. As a graduate student at Boston College, where he earned a master’s and a PhD, he says, “I remember getting comments: ‘You write too journalistically.’ And I was like, well, that’s the point, because I want to make my work accessible to others.” He says universities value work published in scholarly journals rather than public media when contemplating tenure awards. (Kristof came down hard on journals: “As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals—only to have the nonsense respectfully published.”)

“There needs to be more open-mindedness that what professors are doing in the public square is just as important as what they’re doing for professional journals,” Whalen says.

BU boasts an array of public intellectuals, on topics from politics (the late Howard Zinn) to religion (Stephen Prothero) to economics (Laurence Kotlikoff) to international affairs (Andrew Bacevich). Bacevich, a CAS professor of international relations and of history, calls Kristof’s gripe “overblown.”

“Survey the op-ed pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal over the course of a month or so,” suggests Bacevich. “Check the pages of general circulation magazines: Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, and so forth. My guess is that you’ll find any number of academics spouting off on this or that. Sure, there are some scholars who choose to specialize narrowly or who write on esoteric topics for a small audience. So what? Let them. I’m a big tent guy—academe is a large enough field to accommodate many types.”

Lucy Hutyra can’t speak for other disciplines, but when it comes to climate change, Kristof’s charge is “really inaccurate,” says the CAS assistant professor of earth and environment. “As scientists working on environmental problems and climate change, I think there’s been a monumental transformation in the last 15 years in terms of…the amount of outreach on the part of scientists.”

“We’re scientists; that’s what we’re paid to do. We’re not communicators,” Hutyra says. “But I spend a tremendous amount of time talking to reporters,” ranging from the Boston Globe to Scientific American. “I give public lectures that are nontechnical.” She does agree with Whalen that tenure considerations should include such public activity, yet even though they don’t currently, many scholars stay active in the public square, she says.

Whalen’s models are such public intellectuals as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, both of whom appear frequently in print and on TV, as he himself does, evidenced by his recent NECN cameo about Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s possible presidential aspirations. That interview was a convivial affair with Latoyia Edwards, a reporter who obviously knows Whalen and is comfortable with him.

She called him Tom, and before they went on camera, she said, “With people like you, we know we don’t have to worry about being rude.”

4 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Are Professors Avoiding the Public Square?

  • PJ Carlino on 03.24.2014 at 9:11 am

    I agree that some professors are out there and engaged with the public but that we can be doing more than just writing editorials in the popular press and hoping that someone will read our work, think about the implications, and make progressive change. Academics who are dedicated to bridging the classroom wall, involved with their communities, serving on boards of non-profits, advising government bodies and community education should be given more recognition for their activist work alongside the recognition currently given to publishing.

    See my recent editorial: History in the Public Realm, http://yester.ly/culture/2014/02/19/why-study-history/

  • ookbot on 03.24.2014 at 9:35 am

    “tenure considerations should include such public activity”
    For folks in arts, public speaking makes sense. But for those in scientific disciplines, it is rare that we discover something that is of such general interest. I would love to engage with other faculty, especially from other colleges, on things like public policy. But there is no time. This was possible years ago when the economy was great and research funding was strong enough to foster the kind of ‘free thinking’ that is at the core of the university. Instead we have to spend all our time writing proposals and pursuing the little research funding that is in existence, because the university of today only cares about one thing: $$!

  • KL Lavalli on 03.24.2014 at 9:44 am

    The real question is not why professors aren’t out there talking to the public — the real question is why journalists and television “reporters” (a word I use only in a general sense because they are more infotainers than reporters) go to bloviating fools like Kristal instead of going to experts in academies. Schools of journalism are not doing a good job of training up the next generation of investigative reporters and the business owners of newspapers and televisions “news” stations are not hiring investigative reporters — they are hiring people who are opinion-dealers.

  • Misty on 03.25.2014 at 9:22 am

    I came to the Cambridge area because I thought with all the intelligence around I could learn how to build a GREAT community, instead I learned how these institutions only talk a good game and walk a self absorbed aren’t we fabulous route. Look around this is a place for only the 1% but they “write” about liberal values. MIT, BU and Harvard have done little to build a better society, in fact with their indifference they created what has become an place for only the elite.

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