by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Fabio Rojas writes for the Martin Center about the proper role of college faculty members.
Let’s imagine that you felt a lump in your body and went to the doctor. Once you sat down in the examination room, the doctor came in and said, “Hello, it’s nice to see you. I am sorry, but I haven’t had time to examine your medical records. I’ve been busy. I went to protest for a higher minimum wage.” You would be horrified. You would be justified in responding, “Doctor, you have failed at your job. You swore an oath to help the sick. I waited my turn and I paid my fees. Prioritize my medical needs over your political expression.”
The example of the distracted doctor raises an important question: When is it wise for people to shift their energies from their job to political participation? How does that affect the people who depend on a person’s labor and knowledge? This is not a merely philosophical question.
In higher education, there is an ongoing debate about the role that professors should play in politics. One side argues that it is advisable for professors to become political activists. One might call this the “activist-scholar” position. Those who argue for activist-scholars make sensible points. They correctly note that there are many social problems and that scholars are in a position to educate people about these problems. Scholars might also be in a position to provide advice on public policy.
In contrast, many people argue for the “professional scholar” position. These people think that professors should not be overly concerned with political participation. …
… I advocate a third way that I call “scholarship first, activism second.” It begins with the observation that the reason we have universities, academic journals, and tenured positions is that we want people to spend their working lives on intellectually demanding research. Without this research, there is no justification for academic institutions. The scholar who abandons their research undermines their claim to authority. Thus, scholars have an obligation to their university and to the people who fund it to produce the best research possible.
At the same time, we can recognize many cases where it would be reasonable and prudent for scholars to enter the public sphere.