Why many academic departments should be replaced with “think tanks”

Glenn Loury has an important essay up on his website, Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of “Political Correctness” and Related Phenomena”. A classic “read the whole thing.” But I want to highlight one section:

Sociologist James Coleman, perhaps the world’s leading scholar of educational policy, recalls that in 1976 the president and a number of prominent memembers of the American Sociological Association (ASA) tried to have him censured for the “crime” of discovering, and announcing, that citywide busing for school desegregation purposes caused White flight. This claim had been denied for years prior to Coleman’s research, and far reaching social policies had been erected on the presumption that it was not true.

40 years later the same attitude is prevalent in much of sociology and has spread to anthropology and other fields. The reality is that the idea of objective scholarship is an illusion. We all know that “think tanks” exist to promote certain ideas and viewpoints, often due to funding strings attached. I know of people who have changed their views, and so have had to change their affiliation (or, simply not published in areas that they knew would not be well received by their institution).

Academia, with the freedom of tenure should be different. But it’s not. The reason it’s not is that it is a social enterprise, and the esteem of one’s colleagues is more important than the abstract idea of freedom to explore what you want. There are strong incentives in many disciplines to toe a particular line, and humans are conformists and they do as they’re expected to.

If all debates come down to politics and power, then putting them in the domain of think tanks makes it more honest and clean.

6 thoughts on “Why many academic departments should be replaced with “think tanks”

  1. If all debates come down to politics and power, then putting them in the domain of think tanks makes it more honest and clean.

    For the marketplace of policy ideas I think this makes a great deal of sense.

    But universities are not supposed to be just research factories, but also inculcators of tomorrow’s intelligentsia (or at least “educated” middle class). I suppose we could have left- or right-wing universities, but I still adhere to the illusion that young adults still forming their minds ought to be exposed to varied and/or opposing philosophies.

  2. That’s certainly a very common view among a large fraction of conservatives. As a pessimist I tend to share this view on many days.

    On the other hand, I know for a fact there is considerable conservative student agitation on many campuses (my wife and I have given significant donations to these efforts). I don’t think it’s original to state that the right-left positioning at universities is today reversed from decades ago. Students are frequently more conservative than professors and (most certainly) administrators. So, conservative students are now counter-cultural insurgents and campus radicals.

    In an insurgency, or asymmetric warfare by the weak against the strong, mere survival is victory. So long as there are students who speak out against the orthodoxy, the fight is not over.

  3. Paul Samuelson, one of the three most influential economists of the 20th century, ended his Presidential Address to the American Economics Association,

    “In the long run the economic scholar works for the only coin worth having–our own applause.”

    He meant intellectual applause but …

    Interestingly, Kenneth Boulding, in his own Presidential Address, said,

    “I did not become an economist for anyone’s applause. I became an economist because I thought there was an intellectual task ahead, of desperate importance for the welfare and even the survival of mankind.”

  4. The problem of “white flight” is now taken for granted by leftists. Who knew they could thank a conservative (though moderate one) for the meme they now readily deploy?

    Loury is an interesting figure. He began as a conservative, moved to the left, and is now somewhat grudgingly moving back to the right.

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