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Professors and the Public Debate

7/8/2014 --

Michigan Ross Professor Andrew Hoffman looks at when and how academics should inform public discourse.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan Ross Professor Andrew Hoffman, who teaches and researches business sustainability, is used to wading into the controversial waters of the public climate change debate.

But it's something he figured out on his own through trial and error. He sees public discourse over today's hot button topics like GMOs and nanotechnology largely missing an important voice — scholars with deep expertise in those fields.

Why more academics don't speak up and what the ground rules should be for those who do is a little hazy. And as social media democratizes information, how do professors incentivized for publishing in scholarly journals participate? It's a subject Hoffman has studied for the past year, including a survey of U-M faculty and a series of brown-bag lunches.

"I see so much public debate over issues — pick any one — and it's not very well informed by scholarly voices," says Hoffman, Holcim (US), Inc. Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. "Should we, as academics, engage in this public and political discourse? If so, how do we do it? We don't really give professors tools and resources for it. They figure it out on their own. We'd like to codify it and at the end be able to say, 'Here's how you do it.'

"Not everyone should or can do this. But as a university, I think we need to start thinking about what it means to be an academic today and the different roles we can play in the knowledge generation and communication business we're in. I really think the quality of the public debate would be improved."

One thing working against academics is how they're compensated and incentivized. To obtain tenure, professors need to teach and publish research in academic journals. Writing op-eds, talking to reporters, and advising policy makers is rarely rewarded in academia, Hoffman says.

In fact, he explains, professors who do a lot of media appearances are sometimes branded as "lightweights" in their field.

"There are not a lot of incentives in place for academics to get involved," he says. "At most universities, you're judged by teaching and research. So some wonder why they should bother. Internally, you run the risk of being seen as a lightweight, somebody mugging for the camera. Externally, you run the risk of being seen as an advocate or pundit."

Because it's not valued, there isn't much in the way of resources or training for professors who wish to get involved.

A poll of U-M faculty showed a desire to get involved — 86 percent of the roughly 300 respondents agree or strongly agree that public engagement should be part of an academic's role. But 56 percent believe it's not valued by tenure committees, and only 35 percent believe it's increasingly valued by universities.

Some also responded that they fear the dangers of being misquoted, and 41 percent said it was time consuming and distracting.

"I think we should think about encouraging and training academics on how to engage in a public debate, how to talk to the media, and show them how to select the appropriate outlets," he says. "I think the time is right."

One reason the time is right is the way social media balances the playing field when it comes to dispensing knowledge. Hoffman says it's rivaling academic research in its impact, whether it's an organization like the Cato Institute or a popular blog.

But many professors appear to be wary of social media. Nearly 40 percent of the U-M faculty surveyed do not and never will use Twitter for professional work, although 58 percent say they use Twitter and Facebook for personal use.

"Social media is changing our world, and we need to recognize that and figure out what to do about it," Hoffman says.

He says junior faculty are more interested in informing the public debate and using social media, but they have professional obligations first.

"We still have an apprentice model and you still have to earn your bones," Hoffman says. "My advice to junior faculty would be to start slowly. Focus on the bread and butter, and get published in the academic journals. But keep your toe in the water. It's not feasible to tell young professors to check their passions at the door and wait until they get tenure to reignite them."

Hoffman hopes to get a national conversation going, fueled by his personal interest in raising the quality of public debates. He's spearheading a national Michigan Meeting conference on the subject, scheduled for May 2015.

"I like to hover between the academic work and practice," he says. "My PhD is a dual degree between business and engineering. I wouldn't be here if I didn't like doing research for academic journals and teaching. But I also try to bring that to the real world. I don't want to measure my career just by counting citations. I want to actually have an impact, and I suspect others do, too."

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,