Are Academics Public Intellectuals? (And What Can We Do?)

The Sunday New York Times included an editorial piece by Nicholas Kristof with the title, “Professors, We Need You!” In this piece, Kristof argued that the vast majority of faculty do not do a good job connecting with media and policymakers and thus do not get the importance of their work communicated beyond the proverbial ivory tower. Perhaps the most damning statement in the piece is Kristof’s assertion that “there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”

Some of Kristof’s statements about the disincentives toward public engagements are certainly true, at least for some faculty at some institutions. Tenure-track faculty are often judged by the number of peer-reviewed publications in top journals, at the expense of public service and publishing in open-access journals. The increased specialization of many faculty members also makes communicating with the public more difficult due to the often technical nature of our work. Faculty who are not on the tenure track face an additional set of concerns in engaging with the public due to their often unstable employment situations.

With those concerns being noted, I think that Kristof is providing a somewhat misguided view of faculty engagement. Some (but not enough) academics, regardless of their employment situation, do make the extra effort to be public as well as private intellectuals. (If you’re reading this blog post, I’ve succeeded to at least some extent.) The Internet lit up with complaints from academics about Kristof’s take, which are well-summarized in a blog post by Chuck Pearson, an associate professor at Virginia Intermont College. He also created the #engagedacademics hashtag on Twitter, which is worth a look.

While I would love to see elite media outlets like the New York Times reach out beyond their usual list of sources at the most prestigious institutions, I don’t see that as tremendously likely to happen. So what can academics do in order to get their work out to policymakers and the media? Here are a few suggestions based on my experiences, which have included a decent amount of media coverage for a first-year assistant professor:

1. Work on cultivating a public presence. Academics who are serious about being public intellectuals should work to develop a strong public presence. If your institution supports a professional website under the faculty directory, be sure to do that. Otherwise, use Twitter, Facebook, or blogging to help create connections with other academics and the general public. One word of caution: if you have strong opinions on other topics, consider a personal and a professional account.

2. Try to reach out to journalists. Most journalists are available via social media, and some of them are more than willing to engage with academics doing work of interest to their readers. Providing useful information to journalists and responding to their tweets can result in being their source for articles. Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which sends out regular e-mails about journalists seeking sources on certain topics, is a good resources for academics in some disciplines. I have used HARO to get several interviews in various media outlets regarding financial aid questions.

3. Work through professional associations and groups. Academics who belong to professional associations can potentially use the association’s connections to advance their work. I am encouraged by associations like the American Educational Research Association, which highlights particularly relevant papers through its media outreach efforts. Another option is to connect with other academics with similar goals. An example of this is the Scholars Strategy Network, a network of “progressive-minded citizens” working to get their research out to the public.

4. Don’t forget your campus resources. If your college or university has a media relations person or staff, make sure to reach out to them as soon as possible. This may not be appropriate for all research topics, but colleges tend to like to highlight faculty members’ research—particularly at smaller institutions. The media relations staff can potentially help with messaging and making connections.

While Kristof’s piece overstates the problem that faculty face in being viewed as public intellectuals, it is a worthwhile wakeup call for us to step up for efforts for public engagement. Perhaps Kristof will turn his op-ed column over to some academics who are engaged with the public to highlight some successful examples?

[UPDATE: Thanks to The Chronicle of Higher Education for linking to this piece. Readers, I would love to get your comments on my post and your suggestions on how to engage the media and public!]

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

6 thoughts on “Are Academics Public Intellectuals? (And What Can We Do?)”

  1. Like Nicholas Kristof, we “deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses” and are dismayed that it is rarely shared outside of narrow academic disciplines. This challenge led us to create Footnote (, an online media company that collaborates with academics to translate their research and expertise for a mainstream audience.

In working with over 75 scholars from top schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, we’ve found that academics are eager to share their knowledge with the public and excited to discuss the implications of their research for policy, business, and society. What they need are platforms and partners to help them translate their expertise into a form that combines academic rigor with language and ideas the public can understand and engage with.

The incentives in academia encourage scholars to focus on communicating with a narrow audience of peers, but the drive to move beyond that and take up the mission of a public intellectual, even in a small way, is strong. It’s just not something we should expect academics to do alone.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Diana. Your site suggests that the focus is Research I institutions, who are the same people who already get most of the media coverage. While this might help some scholars, it doesn’t help the majority of faculty who don’t work at Research I institutions (I’m at a Research II, for what it’s worth). I hope that you try to expand your service to interesting people across American higher ed–and that it remains free of charge for academics.

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