377. "Professors Balance Duty to Students, Public Lives." USA Today (January 14, 2002), p 13A.


If you are a college student, plan to go to college or know anyone who is about to enroll, you may wish to send a message of support to the beleaguered president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers.

Summers is in the headlines these days because he chastised Cornel West, a Harvard professor, for spending too much time on non-academic activities, including preparing a rap CD and participating in launching the presidential campaign of Al Sharpton.

West responded by saying that Summers' criticism showed his lack of commitment to affirmative action. He threatened to leave Harvard and return to Princeton with several of his African-American colleagues in tow.

Summers and West, at last report, are said to be reconciling. But let's hope the issue raised will not pass without vigorous debate.

As a professor at George Washington University, I have been the target of similar criticism as West. But looking at it only from the viewpoint of a student, or the parents who foot a stiff tuition, making professors cut out most of their public activities makes eminently good sense.

Students may gain inspiration from professors who also have public voices, and they benefit when their teachers can draw on their true life experiences rather than merely on their academic research. (My classes in political sociology, I believe, improved considerably after I spent a year in the White House.) However, every day spent on the road is one a professor is not using to labor in the stacks, keeping up with the learning of his discipline and being available to his students.

Judge Richard Posner just published a book on public intellectuals. Its main point is that being in the public eye is undermining to one's scholarship (something Posner, both a lecturer at the University of Chicago and a judge in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, should know about firsthand; he is one of the most frequently quoted academics.)

That said, public intellectuals do a social service.

There is a reason President Kennedy brought a whole gaggle of public intellectuals (mainly from Harvard, by the way) to serve in his administration, as did most of the presidents who followed him. In the years he was a Harvard professor, Henry Kissinger was a major voice influencing thinking about foreign policy. President Nixon wasted little time tapping him to become his national security adviser and then secretary of State.

Public intellectuals (some Op-Ed writers included) are among the few voices policymakers and the citizenry hear that do not reflect one lobby or another, are not the handmaiden of this or that special interest. Moreover, they are particularly well situated to speak truth to power.

When I served in the Carter administration, most of those around me had no other jobs to fall back on. But I had tenure at Columbia University. It was much easier for me to "talk turkey" than it was for them. Also, public intellectuals are trained to think on broad issues; they can bring fresh viewpoints to the seats of power often locked into prior assumptions. In short, what is good for college students may not be good for the public at large -- and vice versa. The best way to go then is to compromise.

Public intellectuals need to be reminded that their job, first and foremost, is teaching students and doing research. Therefore, they cannot regularly miss their classes and office hours; above all, they ought to spend a proper amount of time nursing their scholarship.

Thus, last year I published both a popular book, aimed at my fellow citizens, and one issued by an academic press. I believe that both benefited from my dual life.

Summers, one assumes, did not mean to shut down the public voice of Cornel West or those of numerous other public intellectuals on his campus, just rein them in some.

If other campuses follow suit, we may move as close as possible to having the best of both worlds: students who are not short-changed by -- indeed, who gain some from -- the public side of their professors.

At the same time, if campus intellectuals are allowed a reasonable public voice, our policymakers and citizens will not lose those who can readily afford to speak truth to power and raise new perspectives that challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment.

Amitai Etzioni, author of The Spirit of Community and The New Golden Rule, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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