The Globe and Mail published an interesting comment piece by Lawrence Martin the morning, entitled "Canada's political scholars fiddle while Rome burns". The piece invokes a bygone era in which academics (and specifically political scientists) "played a more prominent role in national political debates" and bemoans the timidity/indifference/lack of clout of today's academic. He urges that "[t]oday’s issues are just as important and, given their privileged positions, their Senate-like salaries and their great wads of free time, you might think the pedagogues would show more civic responsibility. Or guts."
It is worth addressing the pros and cons of this sort of public engagement, attentive to Martin's suggestion that academics are AWOL from today's key public debates. In brief, he raises many valid points, but I think there is nuance and perspective to be added. As this is an issue with which I have struggled, I thought it worth articulating my personal philosophy, derived from trial and error.
First, a bit of context: I can't comment on the actions of colleagues in political science. I am, however, more attuned to practices in law schools. My law school colleagues tend often to be active in the media and beyond, both relative to their counterparts elsewhere in the university and other law schools. At one point, I too was much more active in the media, but have since become much more modest in my punditry for reasons I will recount.
The Professional Context
First, some comments on the professional context in which academics operate. The classic formula for an academic's workload is the famous 40/40/20 formula: 40% teaching; 40% research; 20% service to the academic and broader community. (As a vice dean, I must emphasize that the latter category includes the necessary but deeply unpopular administrative work that keeps an academic institution in operation (like reviewing student admissions files, dealing with exam appeals, planning and rationalizing program curricula, sitting on thesis juries, and general departmental governance and decision-making). It is not all about making the world a better place -- what I shall call being a "public citizen".)
In practice, no single week is divided up in this 40/40/20 manner, and the relative distribution of activity varies over the annual academic calendar (and across an academic's career).
It is worth converting these figures into numbers. The average full-time professor in Canada earned $115,513 in 2010-11. On a 40/40/20 breakout, that means the average professor is paid $46,205.20 for teaching, the same for research, and $23,102.6 for administrative duties and service to the community. (It is possible to use other statistics to break this down further and calculate how much professors are paid for each course, graduate supervision, and article they publish. Of course, that rather impressive figure would need to be countervailed by the fact that professors can reach close to early middle-age with virtually no income as they pursue first, second, third degrees and possibly post-docs or temporary teaching gigs, before landing a full-time academic posting. Our profession, in other words, imposes a late start on income earning years and direct costs on the acquisition of higher learning that steeply discounts the face value of the salaries we then earn. But debating the merits -- or not -- of academic pay is not the purpose of this piece. And there is much debate to be had there).
This is not a profession that dockets time to be reviewed by an employer willing or able to dictate actions and compel adherence to the 40/40/20 formula. There are, however, two anchor points. First, academics need to turn up in class and do their grading. Second, academics who don't publish risk perishing up until the point at which they receive tenure, after which there is longer a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.
That said, academics do have substantial liberty to choose community service over many other of their activities, and to define that community service in a manner that would please commendators such as Lawrence Martin (although displease others). Indeed, universities are more accommodating of such activities than they once may have been (at least at face value) -- universities compete on the basis of intangibles and media profile is one of those.
It is less clear that tenure committees, unpredictably staffed, are always as impressed. And so junior colleagues are advised not to be too much the public citizen and too little the scholar. It is not, as Martin suggests, that academics quake at the prospect of being punished for their positions. Instead, it is a question of being hurt by the opportunity cost of being polemicist rather than scholar.
There is a point of principle in play as well. The bottom line is that academics are not payed by their employers (who are in turn financed by taxpayers and student tuition) to be pundits, polemicists or political actors, except to the extent that such activities reasonably lie within the allotment of time dedicated to service to the community or are reasonably tied to their research and teaching activities. Put another way, academics are not supposed to be (just or even primarily) limelight-seeking norm entrepreneurs in the take-no-prisoners, unnuanced political debates of the day that galvanize the media.
This raises a related point. Those who live by the media may die by the media. In my personal observations, an academic who is also a public intellectual may retain the respect of his or her peers only if he or she is an "intellectual" and not just "public".
The media limelight risks drawing academics inexorably into areas where they may have little more knowledge than any attentive reader of newspapers. Journalists tend to wish to rely on academics who already have an media profile, and they tend also to have a broad conception of the scope of expertise any one person can claim. I have, in fact, been told that "it doesn't matter that you're not an expert, because you still know more than X" (X being the clientele served by that media outlet). I have also regularly encountered people in government who note wryly (and correctly) that they have entire sub-departments of people charged with understanding the multiplicity of complicated issues that prolific academic commentators may claim lie within their individual expertise. I have no doubt, indeed, that such comments have been made about my own commentary, and probably with justification.
This is one reason why I now am very judicious in public commentary in the media, trying to limit myself to commenting on things I teach (recently) or on which I have written (in some detail, and recently). It boils down to this: the facts matter and I don't like being wrong.
This raises a related point of quality control. As in any profession, the calibre of journalists varies. Some are subject matter experts who wish to probe nuance. I am still very interested in speaking to these people, again assuming it crosses my expertise comfort zone. Others are generalists who may struggle with the level of detail I may believe necessary in understanding an issue. Still others may be looking for a name to affix to an idea; that is, they want a counterpoint to a point. The latter objective has value of course, in the sense that there may be a counterpoint.
On the other hand, they may not be tremendously interested if an academic's point is less counterpoint than agreement with the original point. I have had the misfortune of being misquoted to varying degrees in order to create a sense of false discord. In one notorious case, I expressed agreement with a position and was asked, hypothetically, what the opposing view might be. I speculated on this, and then this speculative discussion was later shown on national television edited in a fashion suggesting that I was advancing that perspective. I pretty much stopped doing television media after that point.
So much of what passes for reporting and commentary now is about inter-personal drama and not about the underlying substance or issues of the day. As evidence, it is not uncommon for a journalist to seek comment on the personal qualities of a public figure -- not of their office, but on their personal manner or conduct. When I was a more regular media contributor, I would get calls asking me to opine about someone's hiring, firing, and/or alleged misdeeds, matters on which I had no personal knowledge. There are very few circumstances in which I as a legal academic feel qualified to offer an expert opinion on someone else's personality, unless I did have such personal knowledge and was, e.g., working on a legal case in which these matters were material and appropriately raised in the media.
Professionals in the business no doubt note that I need media training to avoid these inevitable reputational snares. But it is not my job to interact with the media. In acting as a public citizen, I am performing the public duty of trying to communicate knowledge and perspectives that I have acquired as an academic, mostly at the public expense. I am not trying to "spin" a message by managing the media. Of late, I have taken the view that if "spin" is the only way in which one can communicate through the media, I'll abstain and confine myself to my writings, including this blog.
This last point raises another. The media is increasingly an archaic means of being that public citizen. It is an intermediary of public discussion and debate that almost daily appears to be losing ground relative to blogs, tweets and whatever other forms of mass (and at the same time, narrowly siloed) communication now web the world together. It used to be that a media appearance on a given show or a given newspaper seemed to guarantee a fairly universal coverage. No longer. And so the virtue of media (the ability to engage a broad audience) is now much reduced, certainly relative to its downside: the lack of editorial control over how a journalist presents (or misrepresents) your comments.
And in the new world of blogs and the tweetisphere, academics (at least the ones in my law school) are extremely active, including with views that regularly speak truth to power.
To so to revert to Lawrence Martin's preoccupations, it is almost certainly unfair to say that academics are fiddling while Rome burns. It is rather that many of us are now playing different instruments.