Dean Schmalensee’s Business Week article has touched off a lively debate among scholars associated with the Sloan Foundation’s Industry Studies Program. While I basically agree, the crux of the problem, to my way of thinking, runs far, far deeper.
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Dean of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations University of Illinois, argues that "it is no accident that we now see increasing debate around business schools taking more of a problem-centered, interdisciplinary focus. We are in what Mike Piore and Chuck Sabel first called "the second industrial divide" — a period when key institutional arrangements are incompletely matched to markets, technology, and demographics."
I could not agree more. And I would add that just when we need scholars and the academy to generate the large scale ideas and public debate to facilitate and accelerate this "matching" of institutional arrangements to economic, technological and social trends, academe is focusing far too resources on these issues and problems.
These issues cross all manner of subjects and disciplines–from economics and business to urban affairs and geography, public policy and social, cultural and demographic factors. The workplace is being re-organized radically away from the old bureaucratic corporation Alfred Chandler wrote about. The relationship between workers and their managers and tasks is changing. What people expect at work is changing too. Work and production organization are being reshaped; design and creativity have entered the picture in a big way. Production increasingly takes the form of globe straddling networks. Cities and communities are being reshaped, becoming more specialized economically, occupationally and demographically. We are in the midst of a great migration. Our culture is being radically reshaped. The family itself is being redefined: now more people are single than married, the rise of "urban tribes." I could go on and on– the list is endless.
One way I like to think about this is the decline of public intellectualism in our universities. Even up to the time Piore and Sabel wrote The Second Industrial Divide a good deal of conversation-setting analysis of social, cultural and economic trends was produced by engaged scholars and public intellectuals operating out of academe. In economics the names are well known; Galbraith, Friedman, Drucker and others; in sociology people Dan Bell; in political science, Charles Lindbolm and many others.
Sure, there are still academics who are public intellectuals, doing serious research on important problems and writing in a style that engages people across the board. Jared Diamond is illuminating the relationship between nature and social behavior; Robert Putnam on civic engagement; Jeff Sachs on international development; Paul Krugman on macro-economics. But there could be, and should be, a lot more.
The shortage of public intellectuals, I believe, poses big costs for society. Stanford University’s Paul Romer, one of our leading students of economic growth, paraphrasing Keynes a great public intellectual himself, always says that what really powers economic and social advance are meta-ideas. If academe is not producing enough public intellectuals: where will these meta-ideas come from?
The answer is simple: The vacuum is being filled by the rise of entrepreneurial journalists, the David Brooks and Tom Friedmans of the world. Great writers, able to pen compelling stories, but far less great on tracking large-scale social trends. Virtually all of the serious non-fiction editors I know at big publishing houses have told me personally that they are seeing far fewer proposal from academics; that the proposals they do see are not nearly as compelling; and that their portfolios are shifting away from academics and toward journalists. Without the ability to track and parse long term trends (and dare I say data-sets), these journalistic public intellectuals that can provide compelling snapshots of the moment, but have far more difficulty shedding real light on the dramatic social and economic changes that face us. In fact, lacking these skills, they are likely to distort the picture and color the popular debate in ways that obscure important aspects of the problems facing society.
Why would this shift away from the university be taking place? The problems are big. And universities say they want more such people. So why aren’t we producing more of the kinds of public intellectuals needed to produce these meta-ideas?
There are many, many reasons. Believe it or not, it’s hard to fund meta-ideas. Public funding organizations like the National Science Foundation focus the bulk of their resources on science and engineering, funding in the social and behavioral sciences tends to go toward smaller-scale, disciplinary problems in the social sciences. Large philanthropy has its hands full making practical impact, and finds it harder and harder to justify large grants for intellectual capital. Universities tend to spread their own money around.
Another part of the problem is that being a public intellectual is difficult work. Getting an oped published in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, I have come personally to understand, is hard slogging, harder at least for me than publishing in leading academic journals. Writing a compelling book for a trade publisher, that has a strong narrative argument that can appeal to relatively large numbers of people, is also more difficult, again for me, then writing research findings aimed at professional peers.
This is made all the more difficult by a university environment which tends to look askance on public intellectualism. Despite what is said, there are sizable obstacles in front of academics who would like to do public intellectual work. Too many departments continue to suggest that public intellectual work is "journalistic," "shallow" or worse; direct graduate students away from them; or say it’s more important to stay on campus and engage with peers and students than it is to travel to engage public audiences.
How to solve the problem? Let me venture some ideas. One possibility is that universities make better use of the
division of labor in their use of personnel–some are better teachers;
some better researchers; some better engagers. Why not adjust their
workloads and expectations?
A Carnegie Commission report redefined what academics do as discovery,
learning and engagement, as opposed to the traditional, research,
teaching, and service. Why not give academics credit for "engaging"
broader audiences? Why not "teaching credit" for
educating beyond the university? Why not use distance learning and new
educational technology to disseminate their ideas?
The idea of making public intellectuals Deans and administrators is simply ludicrous; their value is in their ability to generate and focus energy around meta-ideas.
Still another is that we build new capacity around nimble institutes that engage across disciplines and capacities around pressing problems. The model I have in mind here is the National Institutes of Health, which bring science to bear on diseases. This could enable some serious massing of resources around pressing social and economic issues. But these institutes need to provide real support for public intellectuals who are working on big problems and meta-ideas. The funds can’t be used to promote business, or should I say research, as usual.
Most of all the universities have to commit to supporting public intellectuals, and by this I mean more than just paying their salaries. We need to actively leverage, not isolate, them and their activities.
It also means building real programs around their real-world interests. Take my own area of regional and urban economic development. Most universities say this is an important problem area. Most say they are in fact active contributors to regional development through technology innovation, technology transfer, spinoff companies and what not. But how many have tried to build real academic programs in this area– programs with real support, real financial backing and aimed to generate new knowledge. Many of the truly great universities lack any such programs. But what better laboratory to understand social, economic and cultural change, and the role of the university in it.
I’ll end with a comment from Jane Jacobs, one of the leading public intellectuals of the 20th century. When I asked her why she never joined a university, despite many offers, she said simply: "How could I do work on interesting real-world problems there?"
I would love to know what you think about this, and what might be done?