Fletcher in the News

Does the Academy Matter?: Dean Johnstone Comments in Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy

Ian Johnstone, The Fletcher School

In mid-February, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof kicked over an ivy-covered hornet's nest when he complained that too many professors sequester themselves in the ivory tower amid "a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience." The public, he wrote, would benefit from greater access to the wisdom of academics. "So, professors, don't cloister yourselves like medieval monks -- we need you!"

Judging by the number of submissions that Foreign Policy gets from doctors of philosophy, we suspect that more than a few are trying to break out of the abbey. But the question of academia's isolation from the "real world" is one that FP's editors debate as well. In fact, three weeks before Kristof's article ran, we convened nine current and former deans from top public policy schools to discuss when and how scholarship influences policymakers -- and whether academics even care if their work reaches a wider audience.

The deans quickly distinguished between policy schools, which embrace public discourse, and disciplinary departments like political science, which focus on "pure" research. Nevertheless, the dilemma remains: Academics may produce incisive foreign policy analysis, but if a research paper falls in the forest … well, Washington couldn't care less. And our participants remain concerned, as one bluntly put it, that too many talented professors and students are doing work that has "nothing to do with improving the human condition."

Here you'll find an edited transcript of our lively conversation, along with research conducted by scholars Paul C. Avey and Michael C. Desch into how policymakers and academics see each other. We've also included data on another vexing issue: the limited influence of women who research and write about foreign policy, relative to their male counterparts -- a problem that our panelists flagged and that was pointedly illustrated by the fact that eight of the nine were men.

We hope this discussion shows how academics do and do not impact foreign policy -- and what needs to change...

...IAN JOHNSTONE [The Fletcher School, Tufts University]: The distinction between a school of international affairs and traditional graduate departments is important, because at schools of international affairs there's a spectrum of things that faculty do. Some are closest to traditional academic work, and some are much further away. There's got to be a mix. And so some are pure academics; others are much more on the public intellectual side. But I think the incentives have to be in place to cultivate that whole range of functions.

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