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    7 Summary of Academic Engagement Faculty Survey


    Should academics engage in public and political debates? To begin a discussion of this and the associated issues, we surveyed the actions and attitudes among University of Michigan (U-M) faculty between November 15 and 28, 2013. Results from this survey will inform a series of brownbag lunches where faculty can meet to discuss their experiences in engaging in public and political debates. With data collected from the survey and the brownbag lunches, we propose to organize a national conference at the University of Michigan that seeks to analyze the role that academics can and should play within public and political debates and, importantly, the opportunities, hazards, and best practices for doing so.

    Respondents were recruited via e-mail, using the network of affiliates of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise; the Ross School of Business; the School of Natural Resources and Environment; the Energy Institute, Engineering; the Department of English; the School of Information; the Risk Science Center, School of Public Health; and the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute. We administered the survey online using Qualtrics and analyzed the data with SPSS 22. There were 368 respondents in total, with roughly 330 usable responses.

    This is a summary of our preliminary analysis, in which we answer each of our research questions: What types of public and political activities do faculty members undertake? What do they consider as being the opportunities and barriers in such activities? What do they consider as the role of the university in facilitating such activities? How do their beliefs, attitudes, and actions vary as a function of their sociodemographics?

    As the aim of our research is the relative groupings of respondents’ beliefs, attitudes, and actions and not the testing of hypotheses per se, we restrict the quantitative analyses to measuring simple frequencies and the strength of the association between variables. Although these are self-selected respondents (i.e., a nonprobability sample), we attempt to determine if they appear representative of U-M faculty. While it is not our intent to generalize to larger populations, response bias is still a possible concern.[18] Thus we compare the sociodemographics of respondents with their departments to determine if there are broad trends in response and nonresponse. Of the respondents, 41 percent would be interested in participating in a series of brownbag lunches where scholars share their experiences in public and political engagement (35 percent maybe, 24 percent no).

    1. Have you done or do you intend to do any of the following public and/or political engagement activities?

    Over 62 percent of respondents give media interviews, 59 percent provide assistance to government agencies, and 59 percent give talks or presentations to the general public. Of the respondents, 39 percent do not, and never will, use Twitter for academic/professional work; 35 percent say the same for Facebook (though 58 percent use Twitter and Facebook for personal communication).

    Other activities include the following:

    • Consulting: For government and for nonprofit organizations
    • Creating online content: A website to teach mathematics; online community events
    • Writing policy and standards: NAS studies, SAE and ISO standards, white papers
    • Working with NGOs: Volunteering, teaching, providing pro bono technical assistance, assisting with advocacy strategy, participating in various local community activities, working with international NGOs on reforms in developing countries, conducting collaborative research with community-based organization leaders (who in turn share research findings, for example, as expert witnesses and in congressional testimony)

    2. To better understand why, please indicate how much you agree or disagree with the following statements.

    Public/political engagement . . .

    Of the respondents, 90 percent agree or strongly agree that public engagement informs public discussions, and 86 percent disagree or strongly disagree that this is not the role of academics. Sixty-six percent believe that external engagement is complementary to their academic research, though 56 percent believe this activity is not valued by tenure committees and 35 percent believe it is becoming increasingly valued by the academy. Thirty-four percent believe this activity is dangerous, as it is often misquoted, and 41 percent believe it is time consuming and distracting.

    3. Any additional comments on the obstacles or incentives, hazards or opportunities to engaging in public and political discussion not listed above?

    The respondents provided the following comments:

    • It is surprisingly difficult to navigate this arena to find outlets that are an effective use of one’s time. The New York Times is the gold standard, but even insiders have little idea how to get onto the op-ed page. Other newspapers (possibly excepting the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post) are of little value in reaching the public; beyond that, blogs and other platforms are likely to play mostly to the vanities of authors (which is also fine).
    • There are twenty-four hours in a day.
    • I worry that public engagement could make political enemies who could potentially interfere with my career for nonacademic reasons.
    • Obstacles: Many faculty are not prepared to work with the media, for example (e.g., translating their research and its significance into sound bites). Some faculty still believe that faculty should not be involved in political engagement, and some faculty fear that doing so will diminish them in the eyes of important colleagues. I also think there’s a jealousy component here: Those who don’t do so may say they don’t want to while not doing so because they fear their inadequacy.
    • It is sometimes difficult for university people to achieve credibility with the public. There is often an assumption that they have narrow knowledge and do not understand “real-world” problems.
    • Senior officials threaten when one speaks out about a concern that he or she sees, a concern that the person may have reported to the SEC, the IRS, and others.
    • Could writing one’s congressman (who is against increased funding for scientific research) be misinterpreted and bring more scrutiny to the university?
    • The “hazards” vary widely depending on the channel of communications. Blogs, testimony, presentations, and so on permit one to get a complete message out there. One has much less control in dealing with the press, whose objective is often a sound bite that may be out of context, misquoted, or misconstrued.
    • Most faculty live in a bubble and appear naïve and out of touch when discussing something not directly related to their research. Because I view political activities as being outside of a faculty member’s job description, I believe faculty should engage in political discussions to the same extent that other citizens do (no more, no less) and not in the context of their jobs.
    • Not all who received this survey are evaluated according to the same metrics. Distinguishing respondents by type of professorial appointment (e.g., tenure-track, clinical, lecturer, research) might give a more accurate picture. I am clinical faculty, so much of my public engagement directly supports how my work is perceived by my leadership.
    • This survey is poorly designed. You are conflating two different things. The “communication of that research” is fine and indeed the responsibility of every academic. On the other hand, advocating public policies is the very opposite of science and objective research. For example, if one studies climate, describing the research is great, but advocating for carbon taxes is antiscientific and will undermine the academy over the long run. When one begins advocating a specific public policy, one can no longer claim to have no stake in the outcome of objective research and thus no claim to objective science.
    • I think the wording of these questions is terrible! You have set up the questions as if there is a dichotomy between outreach versus research, and many of your questions incorrectly equate measurable consequences of outreach (e.g., it is “time-consuming”) with value judgments (e.g., it is “distracting”). I think your survey is foul and misleading. Many of the pros and cons are simultaneously true.
    • My school places reasonable value on this activity, so I don’t feel particularly conflicted between what I know I should do and what I do to make a committee happy.
    • There is pressure from corporate partners and donors to the university not to engage in advocacy.
    • There is a danger of being misrepresented and then subject to harassment, particularly online.
    • I’m not eligible for tenure, so it could result in the loss of my job.
    • It’s important not to be a hack, and that risk is a real one.
    • Science is often miscommunicated by laymen and incorrectly presented as fact to the public (of course, oftentimes also out of a political bias—so on purpose). Certainly, scientists would principally be really qualified to communicate science to the public. But this is a very dangerous business, as the media often times take quotes out of context, so one has to be very careful not to do more harm than good. Also, as faculty, we are not really trained to do this.
    • Government agencies, courts, and the media are more interested in partisan positions than in balanced analysis. They seem to feel that the best way to get a balanced analysis is to present and compare two unbalanced views.
    • All of my responses above need to be taken in the context that I am emeritus, eighty-six years old, and still active (and will be as long as health permits).
    • The emotional impact of negative comments and personal attacks received after publishing/posting in public can be severe and hard to cope with. In public engagement related to climate change, the large majority of responses from anonymous members of the public are denialist, often personal, bitter, and angry. It’s hard not to get caught up in responding, but that usually starts an endless cycle that’s hard to get out of.
    • The “I do it now” category I took to mean “I do it now or have done it in the recent past.”
    • Public engagement is important but needs to done carefully for the reasons stated above (being misquoted, unfairly criticized, etc.).
    • It’s strongly discouraged in engineering and exact sciences, particularly in young faculty.
    • If you want faculty to engage with the public, it must be structurally rewarded in hiring and promotion, just like research.
    • Often the people who are engaging with the public seem to be precisely the ones who ought least to be doing so, at least in my opinion. I think more engagement would lead to better than average engagement, but then I wonder, who am I to say that my views are the right ones?
    • It’s easy for the commentators to make a newbie academic look like a fool. This makes it difficult to get started. Once you are seen as a fool, it’s difficult to get anyone to take you seriously.
    • Those who generated this survey seem completely paranoid to me. Either that or they are just afraid of or do not understand technology. As an engineer, I see my role in society as becoming increasingly important. The politicians are not going to solve the world’s problems. Engineers need to be much more strongly engaged.
    • While funding agencies (specifically federal) often have members of the public engaged in part of the process, the actual merit scoring of most grants in my field pays essentially no attention to public engagement or opinion. I have seen this as both an applicant and a reviewer.
    • Time is limited.
    • Writing design standards and policies need to be considered in tenure decisions just as journal articles are considered.
    • I think the real danger here is the underlying assumption that already pervades this questionnaire—that is, that academics as a group should do more public engagement. I think that is wrongheaded. Academia always had various functions and roles. Some academics served a public role; some did basic research. This is true even today. We have Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Paul Krugman, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Chomsky, to name but a few. Substitute those names with perhaps Sagan, Dewey, or Thomas Huxley and one gets examples of public academics of the past. This is a very good separation of labor. It is not actually true that we need more professors to spend less time doing research and more time being public figures. In fact, time to do actual research is already limited for professors due to the level of demands for teaching, grant writing, and service. We need those who do public outreach to be excellent at what they do. And we need those who actually do serious research to have the time to do it! However, there are very real negative consequences already because this narrative of public discourse is being propagated. The quality of job talks is more frequently close to public relations TED talks rather than serious discussions of deep, intellectual work. Being in the media often is seen as a pathway to tenure, and it is not at all a pathway that is problematic. Flashy, widely visible results trump hard work in the lab that does not have the same PR. All these are very troubling developments and should not be encouraged but countered. Aspects of this are not new either, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has already investigated in the 1980s. Public visibility has long been a mechanism to accrue academic status. If we require this of everybody, however, we lose out on the potential to nurture great minds who do not have the talent for public discourse.
    • Untenured faculty whom I have spoken with sometimes have a great fear of saying anything that might be controversial or not “politically correct.”
    • I coauthored a report you might like to look at: Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University (Ellison and Eatman, 2008). I would be delighted to participate in work addressing this issue (
    • The polarization of public discourse creates the hazard that the scholar may be identified as a politically partisan.
    • I find society in general lacks open-minded discourse, and legal ramifications dissuade me from being actively engaged. The university’s institutionalized bias of nonmainstream thoughts and values further discourages open discussion. It is not obvious to me that the university community even recognizes the narrow spectrum of its institutionalized culture.
    • Many use the perception that this work is risky to avoid making public contributions. However, I don’t think this kind of work is for everyone. There are many in academia who don’t have the kind of interests or personality to work well with the lay public. Good public work requires the ability to listen, learn, and collaborate.
    • I have always taken the policy advocacy approach rather than the neutral expert approach and have been involved in national and international policy debates and political decisions through congressional testimony and white papers. This action-oriented research is not as highly valued by the academy as some other types, but it is profoundly more interesting.
    • Major concerns involve trying to communicate with people who have such different world views and educational levels that it is difficult to argue effectively.
    • Tenure and academic incentives do not encourage public engagement.
    • I’m not sure how necessary this is, but lest there be any perceived conflict of interest or partisan interests, I take a lot of care to ensure that my public engagement is done on my own time and with my own resources. I do spend substantial time in public engagement, and it helps that I have a 50 percent appointment.
    • A tremendous amount of energy is required to make sure that my words are not misinterpreted. I have also had major media outlets plagiarize my own words without attributing them to me. For example, Nancy Schneiderman of NBC plagiarized my own term “misguided benevolence” without attribution.
    • This is something that as academics we can and should do. Many of us have. But we should also resist being co-opted by for-profit entities. This is a big danger, and I think the university should really think twice about the ways that its faculty might end up getting used in unsavory ways.
    • There are many roles for academics in public/political engagement. Such engagement does not have to mean advocacy, and I work hard to maintain discernable objectivity. As a result of this, I am regularly asked to, say, write a blog prior to governmental meetings, because blogs are entered into public testimony, and mine are viewed as more objective than most. What I write does not help me with funding agencies; in fact, I could probably argue that it hurts me, because program managers are concerned with what I might say. I often say I could not have the level of engagement that I have if I did not have tenure.
    • It takes time and energy, which may detract from work toward tenure.
    • More talk . . . The whole higher education system is an anachronism. The best research and teaching content is almost never in academic journals any longer, and for various reasons. The biggest reason is that there is a veritable tsunami of content being published in myriad different media. In both scale and scope, peer-reviewed research is a single, tiny piece of mist coming off of that tidal wave. Universities fret that massive open online courses threaten their franchise, and indeed they do. But this is only one franchise that is in peril. And the fundamentals driving the tsunami are incontrovertible and unstoppable. The die is cast.
    • Our research needs to relate to the world; this is so basic. In medicine, we do research to solve problems (e.g., disease) and promote health. Likewise, in social sciences (including topics like economics), we need to relate to the world and help improve it (fix problems and promote well-being). In both, there is basic research that might be more esoteric and ivory tower and work that is more closely related to phenomena. In either case, there needs to be dialogue and interactions beyond the academy to inform research questions and share research processes and findings. The only hazard I see is being isolated and removed from society.
    • Not all interactions are the same—in terms of skills required, potential benefits to the community/discourse, and potential for negative consequences (time consumption, potential for public, legal, or academic attack). There is not much training in this or guidance on how to choose the best forums.
    • I am currently pretenure and am not doing a lot of public or political engagement. After tenure, I’d be more open to pursuing opportunities of this kind.
    • Lecturers should be a part of this discussion, but they face a different set of pressures regarding time, emphasis on teaching and teaching evaluations for continued contracts, and a set of time constraints in which research and communication may not be factored into job descriptions or performance reviews.
    • The push for an increase in this aspect of our work must come from “the top” and then be backed up all the way down the leadership chain into the schools, the departments, and advice regarding tenure preparations. Also, it would be good to have better tools and training on how to approach these discussions. The University of Michigan does not do this very well as compared to some top professional schools.
    • On one hand, being too focused on influencing the public discourse will derail an academic scholar from the important research work he or she needs to do. On the other hand, the more our public policy gets out of line with intellectual and scientific rigor, the harder our futures will be as academics. I believe a balance is necessary.
    • I think that academia tends to lean left; I know that in thirty-plus years as a member of five university faculties, I have heard a great deal of disdain expressed for opinions not in conformity with the prevailing ones. That certainly discourages research that might lead to unpopular conclusions (e.g., unflattering studies of green energy sources, work that does not support anthropogenic climate change, and the like). For all the talk about the value of diversity, unorthodox political opinions—at least those that lean right—do not appear to be welcome in the academic community, so any research that might support unpopular political positions is probably also discouraged. A major university like the University of Michigan could do a lot for public discourse by actively seeking out and encouraging the expression of diverse opinions from members of its community.
    • Unless the research has near-term impact, there is a tendency to “hype” research to try to magnify its impact before it has really accomplished anything. I think academics should affect public policy and the public should be informed of research, but without the tendency to spin or hype the near-term benefits.
    • The above is more than enough.
    • Most of these questions are very remote from my work as an engineering mathematician. I do hope you are not going to weigh everyone equally.
    • On many occasions, those of us focusing on academic research tend to be isolated and/or uninformed of the needs of the general public. We do not tend to represent the “general” public. Public policy needs to serve everyone.

    4. When you are engaging in or contemplating the activities listed above, what additional support do you think that U-M could/should provide?

    Of the respondents, 75 percent believe that U-M should be writing and distributing press releases, and 72 percent believe that U-M should set a tone that supports engagement.

    Additional suggested support includes the following:

    • Help faculty understand appropriate public engagement, which is no simple matter.
    • Provide infrastructure support for staff for different entities on campus to engage in this type of work: staff services, website/blogging support, library support.
    • Lower the administrative load overall.
    • Provide grant application assistance for engaged projects.
    • Create university-wide publications that demonstrate public engagement and relevance.
    • Train tenure and promotion committees on what should qualify as success in regards to community-engaged scholarship.
    • Provide legal protection.
    • Hire PR staff to help write summaries for nonacademic audiences and media people with an understanding of what we do.
    • Translate work for non-English-speaking communities.
    • Actively make community engagement part of tenure.
    • Offer funding or travel assistance for congressional or other high-value public testimony; finance entrepreneurial efforts by faculty.
    • I feel U-M does many of these things. I would be concerned with one-size-fits-all board membership.