Friday, July 12, 2013

DC Reflections

I just returned from a trip to Washington, DC where I spent a few days attending events and networking with various think tanks and advocacy organizations. Having spent the last few years doing academic work in political theory and intellectual property, learning about the policy work that happens closer to the sphere of praxis than theory has been eye-opening. My motivations for working on political philosophy included finding ways to make actual change in the world, and I have at times found myself frustrated with the isolation of the academic environment.

Going to DC, I learned that the isolation problem works both ways. While it's difficult to get politicians and policy-makers to hear academic arguments, I've found myself that academics are not always interested in the application of their theories. Since my work contains specific and substantial discussions of how theory should shape practice, I've gotten a bit of pushback. I've heard similar stories from other academics, still in the academy and not. I can understand the sense that stepping back from the creation of policy or direct political action gives an air of objectivity, but there is also a cost to stepping back.

The cost I have in mind is the communication gap between academic work and the creation of policy. Congresscritters are not experts, but they need to decide issues as if they were. Since they can't afford panels of expert advisers, they have to seek some outside support. Here enters the lobbyist, the advocate, the think tank, the research analyst. These are not all equivalent terms, but they exist in a shared space and fill similar roles: assimilating expert opinion from academics, industry leaders, and front-line professionals, and translating it into concrete policy recommendations.

Don't get me wrong, this is work that needs to get done. What I don't understand is why university faculty stepped back from this role. In giving up the role of translator and communicator, academics have sacrificed one of the most valuable public goods offered by higher education institutions. People who spend their lives immersed in their fields of study should be best-equipped to explain the relevance of their expertise and to connect abstract theory with concrete issues. More importantly, without the public-facing responsibility, academic allow the rest of the community to wonder what it is they do and why it is so important.

I've got my own worries about the future of higher education in the US, and seeing these developments reinforces those concerns.