What good are academics?

The relevance academic work has to the policy world, indeed, government, needs to be rethought.

So. The cliché holds that universities are too liberal. Indeed, conservatives who do not like their worldview challenged make much of that accusation. Many of the movements that confront social conservatism draw heavily on the Ivory Tower for their intellectual firepower regarding issues such as gender, equality or race. Yet these seemingly academic endeavors are not beyond reproach. At times, critical theory in academia seems disconnected from reality. The disgusting racism that still afflicts too many people in society is a world away from the racism of the Ivory Tower, where definitions and applications of the term become increasingly banal, drowned in abstraction. More broadly speaking, this can be said for many fields. Is the academic world becoming irrelevant to governance? Last week, Harvard professor Joseph Nye fired a shot across the bow of the Ivory Tower. Writing in the Washington Post, he proclaimed that the makeup of President Barack ObamaâÄôs cabinet is proof that the policy world is no longer interested in academia. Nye believes that academics are in danger of theorizing more and more while saying less and less. Rather, the culture of the academic world incentivizes scholars to pay less attention to how their work is applicable to policy. The question an undergraduate with aspirations for public office might have then becomes apparent: âÄúWhat am I doing here?âÄù Some of this disconnect is obvious in classrooms. Social science papers are often heavily focused on methodology and modeling. Policymakers do not have the luxury of time for the rigor that academics put into their work. Unlike academics, policymakers have to take risks and then bear the consequences. Furthermore, academia is sometimes slow to catch up to the real world. Articles in scholarly journals often take months before they are published. Events such as the war in South Ossetia, a mere nine days long, can render entire works irrelevant. Some professors also note that academic advancement discourages involvement or focus on policy. Junior professors must give strict attention to their work. In many cases, public office experience is a stain on oneâÄôs career. Thus, academic work is geared toward academics and teaching becomes likewise. That creates the gap about which Nye worries âÄî a gap filled by (often ideological) policy think tanks. Not all is wrong in the academic world. When it has taken vocal stances, it has been marginalized. When international relations scholars took to The New York Times denouncing the Iraq war, people largely ignored it. People then were, amusingly, surprised that Iran had gained in regional status. And academics are arguably more neutral than the think tanks that permeate Washington, D.C. The Ivory Tower, in the words of some, exists to hold society accountable. Yet the concern remains: Is academics helping people or society at large? Yes, critical thinking is important and can often trump skills attained by business students. But criticism needs to have a point that is beneficial to others, not just grant donors. Academic economists need to prove how their models are relevant in a complex, global economy in a historic crisis. There was pushback against NyeâÄôs point. Professors from Georgetown pointed out that their curricula are designed to bridge theory and policy. Yet Georgetown is top notch, inaccessible for many and renowned as a public policy institution. The University of Minnesota, by contrast, is an institution built on academic theory. Funny, while driving us to discover, how college recruiters never mentioned such things. St. JamesâÄô Street welcomes comments at [email protected]