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June 29, 2004
Universities and media involvement

Arts & Letters Daily links to this piece about how academics are now being pushed by their own faculties towards the media.

As schools vie to attract top students, top faculty, and top-dollar gifts, they count on their bookish professors to leave the library and enter the studio, where their insights on the day's news might help put their institutions on the map.

"It lends a certain credibility when they see you on television," says Mr. Williams, an expert in military affairs. "It may boost student enrollment in my courses."

For schools aspiring to enhance their reputations, the task of positioning faculty for a "media hit" has become big business. To get their professors into reporters' Palm Pilots, 624 colleges and universities pay between $500 and $900 each per year to be listed with ProfNet, a private database. Some go further by paying thousands to private firms whose sole mission is to get professors quoted in the press.

Spokespeople in higher education tend to agree that the time, effort, and money they invest to get professors quoted in news stories are priceless.

You can imagine all manner of moans about what a bad thing this is. "Dumbing down", "soundbites", etc. etc. But I think that the intellectual dangers associated with universities becoming media backwaters are at least as great as the dangers of media involvement.

I am, of course, biased. My background is political think tanks in general and the Libertarian Alliance in particular, and about half the point of these enterprises is to get political ideas spread around - the other half being to think of and about them. And having been involved in both processes for the LA, I can tell you that far from interrupting or hurting the thinking bit, the media bit actually stimulates further thought.

Ask yourself this. When the history of Britain during the second half of the twentieth century is written, as it is starting to be, which institutions will loom large:a think tanks, or university faculties? And surely a big reason for this is that whereas universities during this period have been wary or even hostile of media engagement, think tanks have lived for it. Has this made think tanks any less inclined to think? I strongly think not.

What think tanks have actually supplied is a kind of media front-end for academics, of the sort their own universities have been unwilling or unable to supply. The think tanks have used universities rather than straightforwardly competed with them. But if you measure intellectual impact young brain cells stirred up, old geezers made to rethink, worthwhile soundbites crafted and launched, etc. etc. and compare it with money spent, I reckon the think tanks have done very well, compared to the universities.

PeterTownsend.jpgOne obvious advantage of the media is that they face professors with something that they don't always get when tucked away safe in their faculties: disagreement. I still treasure the memory of a run-in I had with my old Essex Sociology Professor, Peter Townsend (partly because I wrote it up at the time for the LA), where we generally went for each other's throats on the subject of poverty what causes it, how to end it, etc. etc. The abiding impression I got from this altercation was that Professor Townsend (gratuitous picture to the right) regarded it as something of a scandal that anyone should dare to disagree with him on his area of academic specialisation. Yet for this very reason, I am convinced that the experience can only have done him good, and maybe a lot of good. At the very least it will have acquainted him a little more forcefully with the ideas and attitudes of those whom he seeks to convert, persuade and convince.

More fundamentally, lots of people arriving at university for the first time are often shocked by how indifferent to ideas many people at universities actually are. I have many friends who have told me that they have had a better education at the hands of things like the LA than they got doing economics at university. Many universities exude the atmosphere not of intellectual hothouses bursting with fascinating ideas and arguments, but of rusty old machines idling along, shovelling a stagnating syllabus from A to B rather than causing anyone to get at all excited about it. A good old ruckus on the television between your crusty old Professor of Biology and the local Creationists, or between the Professor of Physics and some deep green anti-technologists or anti-nuclear peaceniks, might be just the thing to liven things up and get the students interested again, and generally to get people talking to each other again, in animated rather than tired voices.

As for that old "soundbite" canard, a soundbite is just a really well made point that you don't like, or just wish you were eloquent enough to have created but are actually not. The pressure from the media to answer dumb questions with short answers is often immensely stimulating to further thought. Professor Waffler, in one sentence because soon we have to go over to the newsroom: What do you do? Or: Why do you bother? Or: Why should we pay for it? Such questions are, I suggest, not so very dumb and are well worth thinking about until such time as you can answer them with a set of soundbites. And when you've got your soundbites, try sharing them with your students. They might finally get the point of you and of what you do.

As for media whore professors who are nothing but soundbites, well, they'll be found out sooner or later. Yes, there are dangers connected with media involvement. But universities can't be all light. They need a bit of heat. And in practice, I say, the two tend to go together.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:02 PM
Category: Higher education
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