The responsibility of professors is to carry forward the mission of the university. These responsibilities are often summarized as teaching, research, and service. In today’s university, professors are engaged in undergraduate education, professional education, and graduate education; they are engaged in research both basic and applied; and they provide service to their institution by participating in its collegial self-governance.
To fully comprehend the mission of the modern university, we also need to understand its relationship to the society that supports it. Our universities have certain tasks and in return are financially supported by government operating and capital grants, tuition fees, funds from research councils, contracts with corporations, and by private philanthropy. But to ensure the free inquiry necessary for their tasks, universities are autonomous institutions. Their professors and students have academic freedom. To protect this institutional autonomy and academic freedom, universities operate under a system of collegial self-governance.
The university, in its social contract with democratic society, has been granted autonomy in pursuing its mission. But this does not mean that the university can proceed without further consultation. The social contract implies an obligation on the university to reflect upon these tasks, to articulate their value in society, to defend them when they are threatened, but also to reconsider them in light of evolving social needs.
In recent years, the research mission of the university has been extended under the pressures of two trends. The first is the shift in government policy toward treating support for university research as part of economic policy. The second is the demand that commercialization of research become an explicit responsibility of the university.
Usually social criticism is regarded as an indirect implication of academic freedom, not an explicit responsibility. It should be made explicit.
We have entered a “new economy” in which the prosperity of a nation will depend upon how it generates and adopts new technologies: ideas will explain the wealth of nations. John Evans, former president of the University of Toronto, declared: “We now live in a world in which the organized ability to create and commercialize new ideas is the critical determinant of economic success.” It is little wonder that democratic governments now ask universities—and their professors—to take on this task.
This responsibility to economic life will not, nor should it, go away. Given the nature of technological change and the dynamism of globalization, this new responsibility is legitimate: the university is a place to create human capital, to undertake research, and then to help commercialize it. However, we should add another responsibility to the university’s mission: the university has a responsibility to contribute to democratic life. The needs of our democracy in a knowledge-based society are just as pressing as the needs of our economy.
Each component of the bundle which is the university— undergraduate education, the professional schools, graduate education and research—has a crucial role in the liberal democracy of post-industrial society. Most fundamentally, because equality of opportunity is essential for democracy, university education in all its forms must be accessible to all who are capable and willing. Also, undergraduate education is, in part, an education for democratic citizenship. The universities are the gateways to the professions. The practice of all professions involves an imbalance between the professional and the client; and virtually all professions have been granted self-regulation rather than being regulated by government. Therefore, in a democratic society, it is important that all professionals be attentive to issues of the client’s interest and the public interest. The university shares the responsibility to educate professionals for this attentiveness, on behalf of our democracy. In our knowledge-based society, political choices require assessment of complex questions. The university can contribute the understandings from scientific, social scientific and humanistic research to political deliberation.
The democratic mission of the university requires that professors accept the role of public intellectual. This role derives from the responsibility (and opportunity) to conduct research, under the guarantees of autonomy and academic freedom. Unlike other democratic institutions such as political parties or the media, the university is committed to research; it is an institution which allows sustained critical reflection and analysis.
The concept of a “public intellectual” is elusive, if commonly invoked. Writers use the term to mean widely different things. Many writers use the term “intellectual” or “public intellectual” to refer to the role of social critic. Edward Said, in his 1993 BBC Reith Lectures published as Representations of the Intellectual, declares the true intellectual is “someone whose place it is to publicly raise embarrassing questions, to conUsually social criticism is regarded as an indirect implication of academic freedom, not an explicit responsibility. It should be made explicit. OCT-NOV 2008 Academic Matters | 21 front orthodoxy and dogma…to be someone who cannot be easily co-opted by governments or corporations. …. the principal intellectual duty is the search for relative independence from such pressures. …. to speak truth to power.”
It has long been recognized that academic freedom allows social criticism without risk of losing your job; but usually social criticism is regarded as an indirect implication of academic freedom, not an explicit responsibility of the university to political life. It should be made explicit. In a knowledge-based society, sustained critical reflection and analysis are essential to the articulation and evaluation of alternatives which are needed in the electoral process.
Universities have always been an important source of social criticism. Indeed, social criticism is inherent in much of the research enterprise of the social sciences and branches of philosophy such as political, legal, or moral philosophy. The work by the scholar to describe and explain the world is often undertaken with the hope that this knowledge will allow society to replace what is with something better. And ultimately society’s support for this research is given in the belief that the new knowledge will be of benefit. Certainly, the massive government support for social science research which helped create the postwar university had such a motivation.
Social criticism is not the sole purpose of the social scientist or political philosopher. Nor do social scientists and political philosophers always address issues of right and wrong, justice, and equity. Certainly, many social scientists in the university have been political radicals or ardent reformers. But many, indeed most, professors in these fields see themselves as impartial, neutral scientists providing objective documentation and analysis of social phenomena. Yet, it is difficult to separate entirely social science and social criticism. Not each professor must be critic, but the university as a whole must accept the role. However, it is neither an easy role, nor without risks.
Although some professors and students see themselves as “activists” and welcome the role of critic, most professors and students are uneasy. Boards of governors, presidents, and senior administrators would prefer social criticism remain an indirect implication of autonomy and academic freedom, rather than an explicit responsibility to society. The university requires the support of the centres political and economic power; the role of critic could bring it into conflict with the powerful.
The dangers to the university of this role are evident and many. Research and teaching, which should be founded upon curiosity and tolerance, might become advocacy and intolerance. It might be that social criticism, like participation in partisan politics, spoils the habits of good scholarship. On the other hand, some social theorists are quite explicit in embracing this role: they identify university intellectuals and students as fundamental actors in social change. But however much the activists want the university to be the primary agent of social change, this is surely not what society wants under the social contract. The university’s obligation, as an institution, is to remain neutral; its autonomy is at risk when activists demand that the university as an institution take explicit political stands.
In accepting the role of critic, professors risk betraying the essential character of disinterested free inquiry, civil debate, and institutional autonomy. This risk is real, and universities must guard against it vigilantly. Critical ideas and alternatives must be advanced according to the scholarly canons of respectful, evidence-based exchange.
We should use the term “public intellectual” in its broadest interpretation, which includes the role of critic, of the outsider speaking truth to power, but much else. In one sense, all professors are public intellectuals. New knowledge is disseminated—publicly—in the classroom through the teaching of undergraduate and graduate students, through continuing education, and through the publication of research. But, dissemination must not end there. The public has financed this research and therefore professors have a responsibility to discuss their research with the public. A professor becomes a ‘public’ intellectual when their writing or speaking reaches outside the university.
A professor is a public intellectual if their academic writing, produced according to the canons of scholarship in their discipline and intended as a contribution to scholarly knowledge, is accessible to the educated public. Such writing is more and more rare, but can be found most often in the work of historians. It can also be found in the work of some literary and cultural critics, and some political scientists, sociologists and philosophers. Reviews of their scholarly books can be found in the book sections of newspapers in large metropolitan areas.
Alternatively, a professor is also a public intellectual if they write and speak to explain their discipline and their research to the public. The research need not be related to public or cultural affairs. The research might help us understand why the sky is blue, or be a new biography of Elizabeth I, or be an economic analysis of trade along the Silk Road in Han dynasty China. The new knowledge is valued for its own sake. While often described as “popularizing” academic research, this is too pejorative a characterization. It is better seen as inviting the public to join in the life of the mind, to join in the world of ideas. This life and these ideas are valued for their own sake. Such a public intellectual contributes to liberal learning, not in the classroom, but in the wider public. To be such a public intellectual is to contribute to lifelong liberal learning.
However, almost all publishing by professors is now through academic journals and academic presses; the intended audience is other professors, students, and specialists. Little writing is directed to the public. The professor’s role as a public intellectual has diminished because of the disciplinary organization of universities and increasing specialization in the search for new knowledge. The very success of the research enterprise has alienated it from the sponsoring public.
It is obviously in the interests of professors and the university to speak publicly about the research enterprise, to engage the public imagination with the process and to explain the findings in accessible language. When the public is engaged, they will be more likely to support universities. But the role of public intellectual cannot be motivated by this instrumental purpose; rather it must be recognized as an obligation to democratic society. In post-industrial society, theoretical knowledge and new knowledge are increasingly important. Society finances the research at universities. The university, with its enormous privileges, has an obligation to make this knowledge as accessible as possible, to disseminate it as a public intellectual.
Universities have not emphasized this responsibility. Professors enjoying a profile as public intellectual invariably say that most of their colleagues are wary (they say that it takes you away from real research, or that addressing the public requires too much dumbing-down); other colleagues are hostile (you have given up the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of celebrity); and some are simply envious (you are successful and I wish could be like you). The systems of evaluation in academic life are not equipped to evaluate the contributions of public intellectuals to public dialogue; promotion and tenure committees seldom give these contributions much attention. This needs to change. The first steps would be to recognize explicitly this mission of the university and then to develop means to evaluate public contributions. Evaluation will be difficult, but no more difficult than evaluation of teaching. Then public contributions can be given weight in tenure, promotion and merit decisions. The time spent as a public intellectual is time spent on the mission of the university in a democratic society.
Given this mission, we can ask that universities be judged and held accountable for their contributions to democratic life. Great universities should be judged not just by the quality of their research, the learning of their students, and the contributions of their graduates, but also by the contributions of their professors to democratic society as public intellectuals. AM
George Fallis is a professor in the Department of Economics and the Division of Social Science at York University and author of Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy (University of Toronto Press, 2007).