Academics: what responsibility for public discourse?

by Shari Graydon

Do scholars have a responsibility to contribute to public debate in the media? That was the question framing a lively discussion this afternoon at the OCUFA-organized World Views conference on Media and Higher Education in Toronto.

Bill Ayers, retired University of Illinois professor who was once again denied entry into Canada (likely due to his controversial and long ago weatherman past) was present by virtue of interview footage taped earlier this month. In answering the question with an emphatic “yes”, he quoted a poem by Mary Oliver on Instructions for Living:

Pay attention,
be astonished,
tell about it.

— and then noted that academics – like all citizens – have a responsibility to engage in public discourse, to voice the truth, to call attention to injustice, to protect freedom of speech by exercising it…

Opening your eyes is not just something you do once, it’s a steady command, you must do it again and again and again…

Jorge Balan of Columbia University just as emphatically disagreed, defending scholars’ right to focus on teaching and research, if they chose, and Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that it’s riskier for junior faculty who haven’t yet attained tenure to speak up in the media on controversial issues.

Lisa Phillipps, from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University confessed to being eager to engage with media and write op eds, and made a self-confessed shameless plug for followers on Twitter, but said she was unwilling to impose such a requirement on other scholars who preferred to focus on their teaching and research responsibilities.

For his part, Joel Westheimer, Professor at the University of Ottawa argued that the pressure NOT to engage with the media (and potentially embarrass or contradict the institution) was in fact much more of an issue:

We need academics to traffic in contested ideas… The threat is not that all of us will have to, but that none of us will…

I can see both sides of the argument, but — activist that I am — find the case to engage much more persuasive… If only because the relative privilege associated with attaining the requisite university degrees and affiliation are such that scholars who have the capacity to comment owe it the society that has educated them to do so when and where they can add value.

The speakers and panels on offer at the conference reflect an embarrassment of riches – too many interesting options to choose between (and a notable absence of coffee, bathroom and schmoozing breaks). But better too much stimulating content than too little.