UMN professors balance political commentary and academia

Some political science professors are acting as pundits for the upcoming midterm elections.

by Austen Macalus

With the 2018 midterm election season in full swing, political science professors at the University of Minnesota are faced with a challenging, yet important side gig: punditry. 

University faculty are increasingly called on to share their expertise on current events in the media — a job that requires balancing conflicting demands between the field of academia and the world of politics. 

“Any election cycle, whether it’s a midterm or a presidential election, political scientists have put on their pundit hat in order to communicate to the public,” said Paul Goren, chair of University of Minnesota’s political science department. 

‘A real tension’

Much like the political arena itself, political punditry is often a messy affair, Goren said. Academics must talk about complex research in a media environment that values simplicity. 

“Often there’s a discrepancy or a conflict between how complicated a set of research findings is … and the needs of journalism,” Goren said.   

There’s “a real tension” between the the fields, said Larry Jacobs, director of the University’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “Once you step into the world of being a commentator it’s often not possible to be as precise as a scholar,” said Jacobs, whose input is frequently featured by local and national outlets.

Kathryn Pearson, a University political science professor and frequent commentator, is diligent about maintaining a high level of complexity when talking to the press. She said she doesn’t consider herself a pundit because she has “insight that’s different than … the reaction of an untrained political commentator.”

Jacobs also tries to stick to political research and empirical data, rather than personal political views. 

“I’m independent. I don’t have an dog in the fight for anyone. I’m really trying to be as detached and neutral as possible,” said Jacobs. 

When pundits get it wrong

Some people, including those active in political organizing, are critical of academics’ detached views.

“I see people in academia fall into that trap of the myth of objectivity,” said Javier Morillo-Alicea, a former academic turned labor union leader and political commentator. “You can see the ways they are influenced by the common wisdom of the day,” he said, which to him isn’t always correct.

Part of the problem with academics in the United States, Morillo-Alicea said, is that they aren’t usually engaged with what’s actually happening in the world. 

“What I often find with academic pundits is sometimes they are divorced from reality on the ground,” Morillo-Alicea said. “You have to be aware of what people are talking about, what people are saying.” 

Jacobs admits that he isn’t perfect. He said that he missed the mark on Jesse Ventura’s successful governor campaign, in part because the history of third-party candidates is dismal.

“I think political science brings rigor to our efforts to analyze and explain elections. I don’t think it’s foolproof,” he said. 

But he also pointed out a 2016 commentary piece he wrote six months before the presidential election indicating President Donald Trump could win. He ended up being right.

Pearson has another approach to ensure she’s not wrong: sticking to the political science, rather than predictions. 

Good for the community, bad for a career

Even when scholars get punditry right, they are not always rewarded in academia. 

Jacobs admits professors can be looked down on for commenting to the media, especially when departments are looking for “tangible benefits,” such as grants. 

“[Punditry] may be a bad decision for a faculty member looking to come up for tenure, to get appropriate salary increases,” Jacobs said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

Pearson is “very clear” that her work in the media isn’t her most important activity. “Research and teaching always come [first],” she said. 

But many people, including Pearson, see a benefit to professors’ work in the media. 

Pearson said that professors can better inform the public with their research. “The benefit is to the community and to the University … in sharing political science insight with a broader audience,” she said.

And with increased attention on the midterms, not to mention more women running for office, Pearson is in her element. 

“I feel like my research definitely has something to contribute to the current election context,” Pearson said.