Academic Activism: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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Julie Knight
M.V. Lee Badgett, author of The Public Professor.

Reviewing The Public Professor by M.V. Lee Badgett, NYU Press, 2016

The United States has allowed very few Syrian refugees to enter the country. The Republicans argue that they all pose a security risk; and, the Democrats respond that several screening procedures—employed by the FBI, CIA, the State Department, and immigration authorities—are more than sufficient to allow a large number of Syrian refugees to be allowed into the US. As so often happens in the US these days, no compromise could be found, and the US gates remain largely shut to Syrians. I suggested that the US allow 25,000 children, younger than ten, to be hosted by American families until the end of the civil war. In this way, the US could make a humanitarian contribution without any security risk. I called a reporter to check whether she could help air this idea in order to call attention to it by public leaders and my fellow citizens. When one of my colleagues heard about this, he was quite troubled. “You called a reporter? Not she, you?” Professors, he felt, should do their research and publish it in academic journals, and not formulate policy ideas about matters they have not studied, and surely not promote anything anywhere.

Professor M.V. Lee Badgett strongly believes otherwise. She published a delightful, highly useful, guidebook for activist professors: The Public Professor. I write “delightful” because the book is full of very telling and evocative anecdotes that illustrate the point she is making—a text that no academic journal would dream of publishing. Professor Badgett has the credentials to write such a book, being an activist professor herself. She has written for publications such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and has appeared on NPR and CNN. She dedicates the book to “the activists, organizers, lawyers, politicians, protestors, funders, teachers, staffers, writers, and voters working to change the world, and the scholars working alongside them.” These professors, and those who seek to understand the ways they work, would greatly benefit from this thin volume. Each chapter covers one major part of what it takes to be an active scholar, as well as a table (or two) of specific tips.

Professor Badgett begins in Chapter 1 with a call to academics to reach beyond their normal circles and to engage in public debates. She recognizes that this is a challenge for professors throughout their career cycle: recent PhDs who are eager to change the world, but who are facing the pressure to publish or perish; and, senior colleagues who have tremendous knowledge and insight, but who do not know how to connect to policy debates. She offers several suggestions, ranging from teaming up with community organizations, to designing a research project, to writing a letter to heads of agencies to show how one’s recent research might be of interest to their work.

In Chapter 2, Badgett encourages scholars to understand the terms of the public debate, noting that questions about which the public is concerned will be framed very differently from scholarly debates. Actually, though, public debates often revolve around what should be done, only a short step from academic debates about why things are the way they are.

Having understood the public debates, scholars next need to learn the “rules of the game,” which Badgett takes up in Chapter 3. Identifying the important decision makers is paramount, and Badgett encourages scholars to consider not just policy makers and legislative chambers, but also the courts, private sector foundations, and social movements, among others.

Chapter 4 addresses the question of how to build a network with the relevant decision makers. Badgett uses the metaphor of a garden to help readers think through how to build a vibrant network: planting seeds by identifying and establishing the right contacts, cultivating the network through effective and meaningful communication, but also pruning and weeding the network of weaker ties.

In Chapter 5, Badgett turns to a challenge that will be familiar to many scholars: how to transition from writing liking an academic to writing for a popular audience. The following chapters explore how to communicate in different media, with Chapter 6 addressing traditional media, and Chapter 7 (co-authored with Scott Swenson) discussing social media and blogging.

In the final two chapters, Badgett turns to some of the potential pitfalls of public engagement, and how to handle them. Chapter 8 discusses how to manage (rather than merely avoid) conflicts that can arise when academics expose themselves to controversial public debates. She offers advice on how to develop a thicker skin and how to build a strong ethical foundation. Chapter 9 turns to the problem of managing the balance between being, as Badgett puts it, “an effective and engaged scholar,” while remaining a “respected and employed scholar.” The chapter not only includes tips on time management and balancing competing demands, but also on how public engagement can benefit one’s research and teaching, and how it can be leveraged in advancing one’s academic career.

Many readers, who may find these ideas and suggestions as not necessarily ground breaking, will nevertheless benefit from having a systematic and inclusive list of the various options available to them once they choose to become activists, or even if they have already been active for quite a while.

One caveat: the book is exceedingly optimistic. Badgett reports that becoming an activist professor is “personally and professionally rewarding.” She adds: “The bad news? There really isn’t any.” This is hardly my experience. My first attempts at public activism (in the early 1960s, granted) almost got me fired from Columbia University. Later, I found myself on Nixon’s enemy list, my loyalty to the US was tested by an FBI sting operation, and the CIA kept its eye on me. My first five public drives failed; I was too early (when I wrote about bioethics in the 1970s), too late (when I criticized Project Apollo), and became burnt out in seeking to stop the war in Vietnam as it dragged on for eight years. Only at the tender age of 60 did I find a foothold when I urged communitarianism. I’ve shared these experiences in my own book, My Brother’s Keeper. But perhaps, if I had had Badgett’s book to guide me, my success as an activist professor would have come earlier.