Nick Kristof, professors with smart minds and lots of impact are already active outside the policy bubble!

Nick Kristof’s latest New York Times column with the telling title Smart Minds, Slim Impact in the print edition about the disappearance of public intellectuals and need for better academic policy advice is being criticized by a few academic colleagues. 
Ed Carr’s reply already highlights many of the problematic assumptions around academia, academic writing and the role of ‘the professor’ that Nick Kristof introduces, but there is one issue I feel deserves further attention: The reduction of academic outreach and public engagement to ‘policy advice’. I find Nick Kristof’s approach rather naïve and I cannot honestly believe that he really thinks that ‘better’ policy advice leads to better political decision-making and policies.

But let's approach this issue by first looking at changing nature of policy-advice in the field of development, how it collides with
increasing demands on ‘impact’ and the many ways professors already engage to educate students and engage with society outside their ‘ivory towers’.
They demand 3-page research summaries and we deliver
I have been studying, working, researching and teaching in the field of development for about ten years now and one of the things that always surprised me was how responsive most academics and academic institutions have been to the demands from ‘policy’: When articles were perceived as too long and too complex, working papers and other publication formats emerged. And when these 20 page documents were perceived as too long, the 2-4 page ‘research summaries’ became available, because we all know how little time there is in policy-making. And when ‘policy’ demanded ‘evidence-based’ research and dissemination, substantial parts of the development research industry shifted to supply those so they can get finally read and heard by those in power.

And it was not just the written products that have changed: Teaching has become more ‘hands on’, academics have been increasingly traveling around the globe to talk at various events and the ones I know can be reached by mobile phones as well-probably through the communications department that manages blogs and media inquiries. I do not really believe that all of this has done much to improve policy-making, but that’s another blog debate…

They want proven ‘impact’, not public intellectuals

The second issue, and Ed is mentioning it in his reply as well, is that the academic industry is not/no longer managed by ‘the professor’ or that ‘the professor’ is fully in charge of her/his time. Nick Kristof pretends as if public engagement is entirely up to the professor. So the irony is that the same ‘policy-makers’ who are seemingly interested in accessible advice then came up with something like the REF in the UK where academic performance is more or less solely judged on journal impact factors. Policy-makers, university vice chancellors eager to ‘transform’ their university into corporate entities, demands from the industry (‘Not enough STEM graduates!’) and pressure from third-parties, foundations, research councils etc., have moved academia as far away from ‘public engagement’ as possible, because most of it is difficult to measure. Many of these dynamics are also part of other academic systems and have been debated widely.

They want public engagement outside the ‘ivory tower’, we keep talking to civil society, policy-makers, students, parents & entrepreneurs
But let’s look at ‘public engagement’ a bit more closely. The biggest problem I have with Nick Kristof’s op-ed is that he suggests that policy-advice is the only form of legitimate public engagement. I am sure many of my colleagues find that almost insulting given the range of public engagement and service that is the norm rather than the exception in many parts of academia. First and foremost, teaching is disqualified, because public engagement can only take part outside the university. Great. Even if every university I know has something on ‘educating future leaders’ in their missions statement, the idea that teaching helps to educate future decision-makers is off the table. Well, not entirely. The narrow vision of many ‘professional schools’ is accepted, but regular teaching does not really fit into this. I am being a bit polemic here, but it sounds like the old ‘Why read Marx if you can teach a business case study?’ assumption of successful education that most likely does not produce public intellectuals.

But even if public outreach should focus on off-campus locations there are so many different ways that academics engage as public intellectuals-often in their unpaid ‘spare time’ or as part of a 5 or 10% ‘service budget’ they have in their contracts. If I look at my schedule of the past year or so I remember talks, panel discussions, individual discussions and many other encounters with policy-makers, international organizations, government agencies, visiting academic colleagues from different continents, alumni networks, start-up events, academic colleagues from many different faculties and even ‘ordinary citizens’ who asked about development. Plus, there are academic associations, NGOs and local initiatives. That is in addition to classroom teaching that we live-stream on the Internet most of the time and internal debates on how we can improve teaching and learning so that they are interesting, relevant and critical for our students’ future careers. At the end of the day I know that the Swedish state pays my salary, but I also know that they did not hire me for policy-advice. I also know that I am not the exception, because of all the other
professors I keep bumping in at these events...

In the end, Nick Kristof presents an outdated and very narrow picture of how academics ‘influence’ the ‘real world’ and focusing on ‘better’ policy-advice is short-sighted and simply does not reflect the range of engagement opportunities that academics actively seek to connect in- and outside of their ‘filter bubbles’ in their communities, countries as well as globally.

Instead of looking for the ‘holy grail’ of actionable policy-advice, popular publications and public intellectuals that help us steer nations through uncertain times we need to stress the many ways academics are already ‘useful’-and under more and more pressure from various institutions that proclaim academic freedom, democracy and a better future, but buy into a market-driven logic that often achieves the exact opposite.

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