(Guest post by Robert Costrell)
Background: The essay below was written by invitation for Education Week, to be published along with other commentaries, in conjunction with the release of Rick Hess’ annual “edu-scholar” rankings this month. The invitation was to respond to the prompt below. Ed Week accepted the essay for publication, but then pulled it when I declined to submit to their extensive requested revisions.
Ed Week’s Prompt: “It’s no great secret that the American professoriate tilts to the left, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. The disjuncture between the academic mainstream and a large swath of the American public has been especially evident during this year’s heated presidential campaign and in the course of the Trump transition. What should public-minded academics make of this? Is it a problem if academic sentiment generally aligns with one side of the political spectrum? Does it create challenges for the academy or limit the ability of academics to offer policy ideas or engage in a more robust public debate? What, if anything, should publicly-engaged academics try to do about any of this?”
Education Policy Scholarship a Bright Spot in a Depressing Political and Academic Era
In a depressing era for politics, policy, and academia, our little field of education policy scholarship stands as a bright spot – for now, at least. The current presidential transition actually illustrates the point. Unlike other nominations, the debate over Betsy DeVos has been well informed by policy scholars, regarding Michigan’s charter schools, a central element of Ms. DeVos’ record. Our colleagues have debated what the evidence says or does not say and how the policy choices in Michigan may or may not have worked. Yes, some political posturing has crept into that debate, even among our public scholars, but compared to what we have seen during and beyond the long presidential campaign, and over many decades in academia, our field’s contribution to this current episode is not bad.
It was not always thus. Thirty years ago, education policy scholarship was a backwater. With some notable exceptions, it was non-disciplinary, as opposed to inter-disciplinary. Since then, high-caliber economists, political scientists, legal scholars, and others have brought their disciplines into a weak field and, on the whole, have strengthened it. Consider the transformation of our main professional organization, the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP). AEFP founded an impressive new journal (Education Finance and Policy, MIT Press) and our annual conferences feature growing numbers of well-trained, bright young scholars, interacting with policy practitioners. Yes, political predispositions often lurk beneath the surface, and sometimes erupt, but in general they are well-contained. By contrast, just look at those fields – including some major ones – where annual conferences are hijacked by destructive elements seeking to academically boycott their colleagues from Israel. That kind of thing does not happen at AEFP.
Looking more broadly to the question posed above, regarding the current impact of academia’s leftward tilt, there are definitely reasons for concern. Ideally, personal political convictions of the faculty should not matter, if we all adhered to the historical norm for the academic temperament, checking our political, religious, and other personal passions at the university door. But over the nearly four decades since I entered the professoriate, that norm has been increasingly abandoned. Far too many of our colleagues want our academic freedom, but not the “corresponding duties” of scholarly restraint emphasized by the AAUP a century ago. Moreover, many universities now face student activists born and bred in this environment, who exacerbate matters by demanding ever-more politicized compliance on our part with specified stances and speech, abetted in too many cases by pusillanimous administrators.
A politically lop-sided professoriate will obviously have reduced influence on public policy when its side is out of power. Yes, there is a role for the loyal scholarly opposition. Indeed, historically Democratic and Republican scholars would simply switch places, between government and academia, when elections so determined. But, what now? Where are Republican state governments to turn for academic policy expertise after their dramatic ascendancy across the country since 2009? Moreover, when a State House switches power again, where will the few Republican academics who served those administrations find an academic home, from which to provide their loyal scholarly opposition?
This is not only a matter of the service we can provide our governments, but conversely, the immense benefit we can derive as scholars from a stint of public service. I speak from personal experience of the insights – and humility – acquired during seven years of serving three Republican governors in Massachusetts facing veto-proof Democratic legislatures. Ironically, I found far more political tolerance and dialogue in that divided State House than in the academic environment from which I had come at the University of Massachusetts.
The recent presidential vote – populist in result – suggests the problems in academia may run deeper than a simple lack of balance between right and left. I agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks and the Brookings Institutions’ William Galston, writing in the Wall Street Journal, that our national problem has been the collapse of the broad center. If we are to have political identifications in academia (not my first-best solution), we should try to restore the presence of and dialogue between the center-right and center-left.
As for education policy scholarship, to stay relevant, we should learn from the disastrous examples in so many other parts of academia. We should resist the encroachment of identity politics, which has proven so corrosive, both to academia and the comity of our body politic. We should also resist the hubris to which policy scholars can succumb. When a publicly-engaged scholar like MIT economist Jonathan Gruber is repeatedly caught on video bragging that he put one over on the “stupid” American public in his design features for Obamacare, should we be surprised when large swaths of that public vote against the whole idea of policy expertise?
Let us borrow Benjamin Franklin’s famous warning after the Constitutional Convention, much quoted in the aftermath of our recent election. We in education policy scholarship have a good field, “if we can keep it.”
Robert Costrell is professor of education reform and economics at the University of Arkansas. He served MA Governors Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney, 1999-2006, as policy research director, chief economist, and education advisor.