Combating 'ivory tower' syndrome

There is much in this editorial by Andrew Hoffman that merits broadcasting more widely: “Why academics are losing relevance in society – and how to stop it”. I have been tweeting part of the article with a quote from University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel.

We forget the privilege it is to have lifelong security of employment at a spectacular university. And I don’t think we use it for its intended purpose. I think that faculty on average through the generations are becoming a bit careerist and staying inside our comfort zones. [But] If we’re perceived as being an ivory tower and talking to one another and being proud of our discoveries and our awards and our accomplishments and the letters after our name, I think in the long run the enterprise is going to suffer in society’s eyes, and our potential for impact will diminish. The willingness of society to support us will decrease.

In these comments, Schlissel encapsulated one perspective on the “ivory tower” problem. It’s hard to run a state university in today’s budget and political climate when many faculty appear to have little interest in serving the public. Within the U.S., state funding of universities is declining. They depend increasingly on federal research funding, which has remained steadier, but with an increasing proportion sucked up by overhead. Universities’ share of federal research funding has increased even as individual research grants become more difficult to obtain, but this cannot be sustainable in the long run. Particularly if the public interest in academic work is not sustained.

Many academics would respond that it is wrong to expect research to be useful or to have an impact on society. Or they might say that the topics of research are irrelevant to the purpose of the university, which is to advance learning and provide students with the tools to push the boundaries of knowledge.

But as it turns out, today’s students enter academic training hoping to make a difference in the world, not within a cloister:

Many graduate students report that they have chosen a research career precisely because they want to contribute to the real world: to offer their knowledge and expertise in order to make a difference. And many report that if academia doesn’t value engagement or worse discourages it, they will follow a different route, either toward schools that reward such behavior or leave academia for think tanks, NGOs, the government or other organizations that value practical relevance and impact.
The frustration is such that some no longer tell their advisors that they are involved in any form of public engagement, whether it be writing blogs or editorials, working with local communities or organizing training for their peers on public engagement. Will academia eventually spit these emergent scholars out, or will they remain and change academia? Many senior academics hope for the latter, fearing a worrying trend toward a reduction in the level of diversity and quality in the next generation of faculty.

These trends make me worry about the future. Students are clever and come into academic work with energy and goals to expand the importance of their fields. But so many established academic advisors actually diminish students’ abilities to reach out to the public.

Worse, the students who are successful at public engagement are often selected out of academia. What matters in tenure-track job competition is research funding, not engagement or broader impacts. Federal grants have included a “broader impacts” criterion for a long time. But in my experience reviewing grant applications, a negative assessment of a broader impacts plan has never resulted in a failure to fund the grant. I just do not see this criterion making any difference at all to the level of engagement expected for funding. As long as public engagement remains unimportant in the process of hiring, tenure, and grant funding, the students and early career academics who are most out of touch will continue to win positions and prestige, and students who succeed at engagement and public impact will continue to seek other opportunities.