Punishing the public academic

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very good op-ed in the Sunday New York Times called Professors, We Need You! The text argued that academics were becoming less relevant in the public sphere. Kristof identifies two important, and closely related, realities as to why this may be so. First in the creation of academics:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

and then in the work environment:

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

While I agree with both I feel they both address, and simultaneously miss, the most important detail. The arguments could be seen as the way it is among a tight-knit group with a specialized interest and vocabulary. This could be doctors, lawyers or fly fishermen… all more or less unintelligible to the outsider.

But what is especially problematic with the academic system is the way in which work is rewarded. Public communication and social engagement are often praised to varying degrees but when it comes down to promotion, tenure, ranking or anything that controls the future of the individual academic – they don’t count.

In academia participating in a public debate is a hobby that does not benefit your situation at work. In the worst case something that an academic states in a public forum in order to bring her knowledge to the public can harm the individuals chances within academia. As an academic I will not be criticized for writing yet another obscure article – it’s expected and will count towards a promotion or other reward.

However, as an academic, if I participate in a public discussion and say something that is vague or simplistic I will be criticized from within academia. And if I say nothing wrong but appear in the public debate too much I will be seen as lacking in a serious mindset, chasing publicity and being shallow – and be criticized both from within and outside academia.

So when Kristof ends with his appeal for us not to “cloister yourselves like medieval monks” part of me agrees, despite the fact that this is not the advice I would give to a young Ph.D. student.

Addition 17 Feb: After writing this text a fascinating article appeared in The Telegraph which really serves as a sad example John Yudkin: the man who tried to warn us about sugar A British professor’s 1972 book about the dangers of sugar is now seen as prophetic. So why did it lead to the end of his career?

The article is fascinating on many levels. The problem of sugar is important but for the purposes of the academic participation discussion this longish quote shows the harm it could entail:

“Yudkin always maintained his equanimity, but Keys was a real a——-, who stooped to name-calling and character assassination,” says Lustig, speaking from New York, where he’s just recorded yet another television interview.

The British Sugar Bureau put out a press release dismissing Yudkin’s claims as “emotional assertions” and the World Sugar Research Organisation described his book as “science fiction”. When Yudkin sued, it printed a mealy-mouthed retraction, concluding: “Professor Yudkin recognises that we do not agree with [his] views and accepts that we are entitled to express our disagreement.”

Yudkin was “uninvited” to international conferences. Others he organised were cancelled at the last minute, after pressure from sponsors, including, on one occasion, Coca-Cola. When he did contribute, papers he gave attacking sugar were omitted from publications. The British Nutrition Foundation, one of whose sponsors was Tate & Lyle, never invited anyone from Yudkin’s internationally acclaimed department to sit on its committees. Even Queen Elizabeth College reneged on a promise to allow the professor to use its research facilities when he retired in 1970 (to write Pure, White and Deadly). Only after a letter from Yudkin’s solicitor was he offered a small room in a separate building.

How many academics could both have the energy and the interest to fight something like this?