As I mentioned in a couple of previous posts (here and here), I was fortunate enough to attend a conference last month, hosted by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, for academics who write and teach on anticorruption and related subjects. Virna di Palma of TRACE International, who also attended the conference, has posted a very nice overview and discussion of some of the conference themes on the B20 Collective Action Hub’s blog. Ms. di Palma accurately summarizes three main roles that academics can and do play in this field:
- Research: “[A]cademic research into the nature of corruption and measures to reduce it is needed … Academics [also] need to challenge existing information on anti-corruption and to filter out low-quality research.”
- Activism/advocacy: Professors can serve as “activists and play a firsthand role in shaping public opinion and policy issues.”
- Teaching: “Academics educate future policy makers and business executives, directly shaping social, economic and political structures and values…. Academics can influence behavior, promote international standards and norms, counter rationalizations before they become ingrained and mold future leaders.”
I agree with all of this (and I get a warm, fuzzy feeling when someone who is not a professor says something nice about my tribe). But I want to highlight a potential tension between goals 1 and 2 (research and activism/advocacy), and point out how that same tension may play out in the context of goal 3 (teaching).
Here’s the issue: In doing academic research (at least in the social sciences), professors are supposed to follow the evidence where it leads, and ensure that their conclusions are well-grounded in the research. We don’t always succeed, but that’s the ideal. An academic who starts with a conclusion and then cherry-picks evidence to support that conclusion, or who makes broad claims that are not backed up by the evidence, or who fails to acknowledge complications and counterevidence, will be roundly criticized for doing so. Indeed, the latter concern often leads us to the sort of “it all depends” conclusions that drive policymakers crazy (as captured by Harry Truman’s famous request for one-handed economists, who couldn’t say “on the other hand”).
But in the world of activism and advocacy, there are tremendous pressures — often for legitimate reasons — that clash with the above values. Sometimes there’s no tension, as when an academic is convinced, based on the best existing research, that he or she can make a full-throated case for a particular position. Quite often, though, the evidence is murky, complex, or nonexistent. But to be effective as an advocate, one may feel pressure to make matters (in Dean Acheson’s famous and troubling phrase) “clearer than the truth.”
In my relatively short time working on anticorruption issues, I’ve already seen some of this first hand: well-meaning activist/policy types will say to the professor types, “We want to advocate for X, please find some evidence showing X is a good idea,” or “The other side is going to say Y, so it would be helpful if you can provide some evidence that Y is not true.” Add to this the fact that the side of a policy debate that an academic prefers — perhaps the side that favors more aggressive action against corruption — turns out to rely on questionable evidence of the sort that, as di Palma says, good academics should filter out. (Consider, for example, the number of policy papers and academic articles that continue to cite Mauro’s 1995 article for the claim that corruption reduces economic growth, even though the article does not support that claim.) And on top of all this, sometimes (not always, but often) an academic engaging in advocacy activities is implicitly leveraging her credibility as a scholar: implying that her positions are based in her scholarly expertise, rather than her opinions as a concerned citizen like any other.
The bottom line is that it is much more difficult — I say difficult, not impossible — for an academic to fulfill both of the first two objectives di Palma identifies in her post. I realize all that may sound a bit self-indulgent, and of interest only to other academics (and perhaps not even to them), but I think it’s worth putting on the table — explicitly — the tension between these two roles.
Finally, a word about teaching: When professors teach courses on corruption and anticorruption, there are (at least) two distinct things we might hope that they do, which we might think of as teaching of skills and teaching of values. When I teach a course on anticorruption to law students, for example, my objective might be to teach them some combination of general critical thinking and how to effectively assist clients (“teaching of skills”), or my objective might be to imbue in my students the importance of behaving ethically and of fighting against corruption (“teaching of values”). These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are different. Ms. di Palma’s comments on teaching are very much oriented toward teaching of values, but teaching of skills might in fact be more common (at least outside of specialized classes on professional ethics). And many professors might be much more comfortable with teaching of skills than with teaching of values, for the same reason that many professors are more comfortable with research than with advocacy.
Again, I realize this all sounds a bit like academic navel-gazing, but I do think that academics and non-academics alike should think a bit more clearly and explicitly about these tensions and alternatives when contemplating the role of professors in the larger world of anticorruption work. For my part, I’m much more comfortable with research as opposed to advocacy, and with teaching of skills as opposed to teaching of values. But that might be idiosyncratic (or wrong-headed), and it might also be due in part to the fact that I teach in the United States, rather than in a context where, as Ms. di Palma correctly points out, “academics are uniquely positioned [to act as advocates because] they typically operate under fewer political constraints and can speak and write more freely about sensitive corruption issues.” I hope some others out there with thoughts about the tensions I’ve highlighted might offer their views on whether these tensions are in fact genuine, and if so how they ought to be managed.