How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

The Arrogance of Not Working in Public

David M. Perry’s new piece in Pacific Standard revisits an old lament: How can scholars become public intellectuals if academic culture won’t reward them for doing so?

“On every campus, I meet scholars eager to share what they know outside the walls of their institutions. They find themselves stalled by three factors: lack of knowledge on how media works as an industry, fear of being scorned by their colleagues, and the realization that, in the chase for tenure or promotion, such public work rarely counts toward academic credibility or formal metrics…

“The snobbery, though, reflects a deeper problem: In most disciplines, none of this work counts. Few academics on or hoping to be on the tenure track can afford to devote much of their time to work that is not instrumental in advancing their career. Those who can apportion their time toward public work tend to be either outside academe (which presents its own complex set of issues) or secure in their current academic position. That latter group skews white, male, and employed at elite universities.”

Perry’s story is a sad/happy one: he ended up leaving a tenure track position to become an academic advisor at the University of Minnesota as well as a freelance writer, which has allowed him to publish 350 pieces, many of which he says have been informed by his expertise as a medievalist.

But his familiar solution to the problem — make public scholarship count toward advancing one’s academic career — while worth advocating for, could take a decade or more.

Meanwhile, plenty of young scholars do find the time and courage to think in public while also building their careers:

  • Climate scientist Daniel Swain runs the California Weather Blog, has 23K Twitter followers and gives numerous media interviews while also holding down two academic appointments and one NGO appointment.
  • Colby College Assistant Professor of Government Laura E. Seay writes for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, the Christian Science Monitor and The Atlantic.
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at VCU who’s already written two books for non-specialists, has a paywalled newsletter, 81K followers on Twitter and is represented by a speaking bureau.

That’s just off the top of my head. So I don’t know. Is this a humanities problem?

Incentives can be useful when kicking off a thought leadership program within an organization or institution. But I think the flaw in Perry’s argument can be summed up in this (I’m sure unintentionally) arrogant sentence:

“Most of all, though, who has the time to do public work when it doesn’t count for anything?”

If you don’t buy that using your expertise to help solve our many collective challenges is worth anything on its own, I doubt that making it count toward tenure will somehow clear the necessary space for you to do so.