University of Toronto Professor: We Need More Activism in Academia

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

University of Toronto Professor Jessica F. Green argued that academia needs even more activism in a column for the Chronicle this week.

Jessica F. Green, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, argues in a Sunday column for the Chronicle that academia needs more political activism. Green argues that the “production of knowledge is necessarily political and cannot be otherwise.” But is that really true? Are the conclusions that unbiased truth-seeking researchers inherently political? In fact, they should be the opposite of political. Research often has political implications but it is essential that university professors ensure that their personal political biases don’t impact their work.

But the production of knowledge is necessarily political and cannot be otherwise. Choosing to ignore this reality has diminished the influence of political scientists in the public sphere.

In short, we need to rethink the relationship between advocacy and the academy. The time for being an honest broker has passed. The existential threat of climate change requires that we use our expertise, and our position of privilege in the academy, to advocate for solutions rather than merely lay out options. Some academics do pursue “engaged scholarship” — which seeks to link real-world problems to broader theoretical insights — but this type of work is not prevalent.

Green argues that scholars should be able to be both experts and advocates. The issue, then, is that the public won’t trust the outcome of academic research. There is often a fear that personal bias influences the outcome of academic research. As academics become more transparent about their work as partisan advocates, the credibility and legitimacy of their research will decrease.

Being an advocate and an expert should not be mutually exclusive. Rather, as educators and scholars, it is our responsibility to participate in public discussions. Choosing not to have a view, in the name of preserving our expertise, is an abdication of responsibility. That abdication works in favor of powerful interests, and against those seeking to reorganize power relations. There are stakes to the political phenomena we study. We have a professional responsibility to act.

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