Carnegie Has a Plan to Get Scholars Out of the Ivory Tower and Into Public Life. Will It Work?

A long time ago, after starting a PhD program in politics at Princeton, I discovered, to my dismay, that most of my fellow students weren't all that interested in, well, politics. Or at least politics as I saw it: You know, engaging with what's happening in Washington and the world at large. Instead, they were geared toward the theoretical debates over international relations or comparative politics they had engaged as undergrads, and most hadn't bothered to make a pit stop in the real world on their way to Princeton. It's not clear they even read the newspaper.

Many of those folks are now ensconced in tenured jobs and I'd bet that very few have ever written an op-ed article—or, for that matter, anything that could be understood by ordinary Americans.  

Meanwhile, those academics who do aspire to get into public debates can face a tough road. Most of the incentives in their world point away from such engagement, since work published in non-peer-reviewed venues doesn't count for anything when it comes to getting tenure or a promotion. Surviving in academia is hard enough these days without wasting time on stuff that doesn't bolster your CV. 

In fact, publishing for a broader audience can actually make you suspect, and that's particularly true if you work in the social sciences and have a strong point of view. Amid the idolatry of objective scientific inquiry in fields that have a chips on their shoulders vis-a-vis the natural sciences, academics can sully themselves if they reveal "biases." 

Beyond these deterrents, scholars face practical challenges to piping up when their issue hits the headlines—like how to write and place an op-ed or how to get on the radio. Many give up without even trying. 

All of which helps explain why academia has become increasingly irrelevant in the past few decades, with top universities in particular populated by knowledge bureaucrats who tend beaver-like to their esoteric niches while the world goes by unnoticed. 

This is a problem, because even with the rise of a large think tank sector, the majority of experts on different issues can still be found on campuses. And if these experts sit on the sidelines during important public debates, worse outcomes seem all but certain. 

Enter the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of the few top foundations that's headed up by a bona fide public intellectual, Vartan Gregorian. This week, Carnegie dropped $5 million on five universities to help bridge the worlds of academia and policy in the area of global affairs. 

What's cool here is that Carnegie is targeting two of the top problems keeping scholars sidelined.

First, the foundation wants to see universities change their rules on tenure and promotion to take into account policy-relevant work. As well, its grant funds will support younger scholars who want to freeze that ticking tenure clock while they go out into the policy world and make themselves useful. 

Second, Carnegie money will support efforts to pull scholars into debates where their expertise is relevant, through both new research and by engaging with policymakers and the media. For example, "rapid response funds" could be used to cover the travel and time of academics who head to Washington when a new crisis pops up.

There are other interesting elements to this effort, which you can dig into here

And talk about timely—every month, it seems that some new, obscure niche of global affairs swings into play as the world unravels before our eyes. Just this week, for instance, Americans learned they were at war with a shadowy outfit call the Khorasan Group, who are a bunch of “seasoned al Qaeda veterans” named after a historic region lying in what was once northeastern Persia. 

There's probably some academic who knows a whole lot of about the Khorasan—but will never show up on CNN, even as their moment of glory finally arrives. 

So, yeah, Carnegie's big give couldn't be better timed. But whether the foundation can make a dent in the insular culture of academia is another question. 

One problem is that as long as research universities define their missions as the furthering of knowledge, it will be hard to argue that scholars in particular disciplines, like political science, should be judged by a different standard than scholars in other areas. 

Another problem is that as long as most research universities cling to their current missions, the incentives for most academics will remain unchanged. Sure, maybe Syracuse University (one of the Carnegie grantees) will become more friendly to young scholars engaged in the real world. But if those scholars need to enter the job market, they'll be in trouble. 

In other words, the insularity of academia is a hard problem to solve one institution at a time—especially when there's no evidence that the system as a whole is interested in change. For decades, now, universities have been pummeled for becoming less relevant, yet things have only gotten worse. And that's not surprising: Universities aren't really accountable to anyone who favors more real-world engagement, so where's the institutional incentive to change anything? 

Add "policy relevant" to the criteria used by U.S. News in its college ranking and we'll see some action. But probably not before. 

So while Carnegie's effort is laudable, one wonders if this is money well spent. I've hung around academia long enough to know that lots of foundation dollars already go down the drain at university "centers" and "networks" that are actually pathetic outfits compared to any think tank with half a pulse.

When all is said and done, does Carnegie really want to pay $10,000 per op-ed produced by scholars who have taken temporary hiatus from scoring brownie points with their peers? Maybe so. But my two cents is that its money could be better spent expanding high-level job opportunities at think tanks and creating pathways out of academia for those scholars interested in being relevant.

Getting to young scholars early on is particularly important here. As a grad student, I was unusual in that I knew all about think tanks and the policymaking world, and I knew how a PhD could translate into an interesting career outside of academia. Most grad students don't know that, or judge the opportunities to be slim (which they are). And by the time their careers have evolved further, it can be too late for them to make the transition.

When I did hiring at a think tank, I constantly got CVs from academics looking to bail, but who had never developed the skills they needed to be useful in the public square (like being able to write in plain English). 

Of course, funding think tanks vs. universities is not an either-or choice for a big place like the Carnegie Corporation, and they've historically done both. Few funders are better friends to scholars from either setting who care about what happens beyond America's borders.

Still, grant dollars are limited everywhere, and even if Carnegie is doing God's Work here, it's not clear that any foundation has enough money to pull academia's head out of the clouds.