The professor in government?

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my early teens. At the time I was living in what was West Germany, and the government was a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats. One of the key cabinet ministers was Professor Karl Schiller, who had previously been Head of the Economics Faculty of the University of Hamburg.

Fast forward to 2009. In its issue of January 16 of that year, the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education reported that ‘President-elect [as he then was] Obama’s transition team is raiding university faculties as it races to fill … jobs in the federal government’.  Some of those who had been headhunted included the Dean of the Harvard Law School (Solicitor-General), a Professor of Journalism at Ohio University (chief White House photographer), the Director of a Research Centre at George Washington University – and even the then new CIA Director (though he may in the past have been a Congressman and a White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton) had most recently been a professor at California State University in Monterey. The Chronicle suggested that ‘hundreds’ of academics would end up in government or in government agencies under the Obama administration.

Such a strong academic presence in government is not something we expect in these islands, in part because the career path for politicians is wholly different. Many frontline politicians graduate to that status from local government or from one of the professions (lawyers, accountants, consultants etc), whereas in many other countries there is much greater diversity of background. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that in Ireland there have been some prominent academic politicians: Garrett FitzGerald (Fine Gael and of course Taoiseach), Martin O’Donoghue, President Michael D. Higgins spring to mind. But despite that, academic politicians have been few and far between, and even political advisers have not on the whole been from the university world. In Britain I cannot immediately think of any academics who became frontline politicians, though readers may be able to correct me.

I suspect that this has been to the disadvantage both of politics and academia, as it has tended to keep principle and theory out of government and political reality out of academic circles, at least to some extent. So as not to be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that government should be dominated by academics, but some academic presence would probably be helpful, and would also make the workings and benefits of the universities more familiar to politicians. The gap in understanding between the two professions, which sometimes has consequences in government policy on higher education, might not be so pronounced.

Of course the opportunities for such involvement will remain few for as long as the politicians move along their current career paths. But maybe it would be a good idea to raise some questions around that anyway.

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6 Comments on “The professor in government?”

  1. colinscott Says:

    Harold Wilson was plucked from an Oxford academic career as an economic historian to work with Beveridge during the second war, prior to his first election to Parliament in 1945.

  2. MJ Says:

    I think that both Mo Molem and Jack Cunningham spent some time in academia

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    The reasons for few professors in government in these islands are mostly cultural, after all to say ‘that’s academic’ smacks of irrelevance, a symptom of a deep held anti-intellectualism that, in spite of Obama’s administration’s efforts – as reported in the cited Chronicle of Higher Education article – still pervades American public life as well, watching Fox News only for a few minutes provides ample proof of that. There might be other reasons as well of course, and these regard the status of academia itself, its own evolution over the past twenty years or so, its corporatization, the marginalization of its ‘public good’ function, unless it is reframed as ‘economic impact’, the increasing competition and pressure to meet career targets, which makes it impossible to even conceive of periods of ‘leave’ spent as public servants, not to speak of possible conflicts of interest, given the stronger links between business and academia. And then where are the incentives for academics to “get their hands dirty” in politics? After all academics have several ways to “engage” with politicians these days and new technological tools to make their voice heard as public intellectuals. And yet I am reminded of Cicero’s scathing commentary on philosophers who refuse to serve the public realm: “Impeded by the love of learning, they abandon those whom they ought to protect.” Arrogance and self-indulgence are still, two thousand years later, academia’s worst enemy.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      a maybe relevant addendum, with regards to the American political landscape cited in today’s post, is this recent New York Times piece aptly entitled “The Bumpkinification of the Midterm Elections” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/magazine/the-bumpkinification-of-the-midterm-elections.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

      Forget professional politicians and the expertise of university professors, the most likely candidate is one who grew up on a farm castrating hogs!
      Unfortunately the growing economic inequality in America (and in Europe) is fertile ground for this kind of conservative populism and for the debasement of political discourse. In a few years we shall look back at the academically “aloof” Obama Presidency as an ‘accident of history’.

  4. V.H Says:

    The difference may be due to the religious heritage of the countries. The USA draws much of it’s structure from John Calvin where the system he developed has separate but connected silos.
    In England the system allows for academic involvement but it’s connected with administration. But many of the ancient places of learning had MP’s elected directly. Peel held his seat from Oxford, probably because it was cheaper to buy than his former position at Cashel. But joking aside, the university seats were truly respected and the Member elected was expected to truly fly.
    Where Ireland is concerned. The system is so convoluted. But much has to with the bishops notion dating for the days of Paul, Cardinal Cullen when academic republicanism was feared. So any system of education that was outside the direct control of the bishops was seen with dread. This was absorbed by under sec Burke when he established the Dublin civil service and so when you’d expect a replication of Westminster’s love-in with Oxbridge with TCD nothing of the sort occurred.

  5. astaines Says:

    One reason is that it is hard to combine running an academic career and moving into politics at the same time. I’m a career academic, a long-standing political activist, now trying to move into electoral politics via the university seats in the Irish Seanad (the Trinity panel). It takes a lot of time, effort and money to have a shot at getting elected. You have to really want to do it. I do find my colleagues are very supportive. There are cultural issues at play too, but don’t underestimate the effort of running and trying to win in a competitive election!


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