Nicholas Kristof wrote in his Sunday New York Times column that to the detriment of the American people, professors are missing from the great debates of our time. He blames this on scholars themselves and the larger academic culture that “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” As long-time scholars in political science and sociology, we agree. Yet we are glad to report to Mr. Kristof that the tide is rapidly changing and scholars are much more publicly engaged than he realizes. And yes, we are happy to take some credit for that too.
More of our colleagues are increasing interactions with the public. Some blog, others provide commentary, while others advise decision-makers. Although some of these efforts are widely recognized, many are not.
A breakthrough occurred in 2009, when recognizing the gap between those researching possible solutions to pressing policy issues and those in power searching for such answers, Theda Skocpol, a world-renowned professor of government and sociology of Harvard University, led the charge with other top scholars like Jacob S. Hacker of Yale University, Lawrence R. Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, and Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, to start the Scholars Strategy Network. The organization is a national association of professors and graduate students devoted to sharing their expertise with policymakers and the public to improve public policy and enhance democracy.
The founders knew that too often years of scholars’ blood sweat and tears put into valuable research, analysis and data just sat in tossed aside academic journals read only by their peers. But in those disregarded academic publications stood a vault of valuable research that could better inform the politics and rhetoric that often prevailed in Washington, D.C. and state capitols across the country.
Today, the Scholars Strategy Network, based at Harvard University, is a national organization of over 360 professors and graduate students who are devoted to sharing their expertise without any traces of jargon, pretense, or inside-baseball. We are proud co-chairs of the Maine chapter, one of the first of 15 regional chapters that have sprouted across the country.
Scholars Strategy Network members hail from universities from 39 states and range from public policy and educational leadership scholars to sociologists, economists, criminologists, and yes, political scientists. We write short and easy to understand briefs on health care, the environment, public budgets, social issues, education, and more, bringing our research to life with policy relevance in mind.
Want to know what research on why America's election system is failing and how to fix it, or about alternatives to suspension that improve student success and community safety? A member of the network has written a short brief explaining research findings about these and other important topics and anyone can access these on our website.
Similarly, our scholars also weigh-in publically with regular contributions and OpEds featured on Talking Points Memo and other prominent media outlets such as, “The Biggest Public Health Threat Nobody is Talking About,” by Tufts University School of Medicine scholar Doug Brugge, and “How the Filibuster (and Gridlock) Only Helps the Rich,” by University of Tennessee political scientist Nathan J. Kelly. And don’t worry, we tweet too.
As engaged academics we haven’t waited for people to find what we’ve written in a scholarly journal nor depended on them to puzzle through jargon.
We take both a federal and state-based approached. In our state of Maine, scholars from the network write every Wednesday in the Bangor Daily News on issues of national and state importance from tax policy to changing family structures. Professors Luisa Deprez and Sandy Butler are publishing a monthly series, “The People Next Door,” profiling Maine people struggling to put food on the table and get health care. As Maine considers whether to expand Medicaid, telling these stories while explaining the policies clarifies the consequences of this decision.
Nationally, we’ve had elected officials and their staff call upon members for data to support a possible immigration amendment, background on a health care issue, and recommendations for potential hearing witnesses, for example. They appreciate learning from leading experts who are dedicated to illuminating complex issues and who have no constituents or clients to whom they are beholden
And, finally, as engaged scholars, we also partner with organizations and civic groups. Working with the AFL-CIO, our working group on the Future of the Labor Movement prepared seventeen briefs and now many of their ideas are embodied in the union confederation’s new strategic plan to reach out to millions of citizens outside the workplace.
So while we agree with Nicholas Kristof’s plea for greater public engagement by academics, we think he has missed realignments within the Ivory Tower. While a good deal of academic knowledge remains (perhaps unavoidably) written by scholars for scholars, the age of public intellectuals is not over. Indeed, its resurgence may be just beginning.
Amy Fried is a Professor of Political Science at the University Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are Co-Leaders of the Maine Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. This piece was published in partnership with the Scholars Strategy Network.