The Role of Academics in Anticorruption: Some Tensions

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. Activism/advocacy: Professors can serve as “activists and play a firsthand role in shaping public opinion and policy issues.”
  3. 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.

7 thoughts on “The Role of Academics in Anticorruption: Some Tensions

  1. Thanks for sharing Matthew–I’m sure your students appreciate the candor with which you acknowledge your conflicted academic role. One thing that may mitigate the friction between advocacy and academic neutrality is the fact that your students, no matter what tack you take, will come to their own conclusions. For instance, if you push too hard on the “corruption is morally wrong” theme, your students may start to focus on the moral uncertainties in “so-called corruption.” If, on the other hand, you remained academically aloof from corruption’s human element, your students may become disillusioned with what they perceive to be small-minded, technocratic solutions. In either case, the careers and activities of your current and former students will reflect your academic choices and, I believe, will balance your influence in either direction.

    • Yes, one of the things I love about my job (truly!) is that I have such contrarian students. And one of the many luxuries of teaching extremely talented students at the post-graduate level is that the conflict I describe is less acute, precisely because I doubt I would be successful in inculcating values (other than, I hope, the values of intellectual rigor) even if I tried.

      But the tension might be more acute, and more salient, for those who teach at the undergraduate level, or even earlier. Certainly in the conference I attended, many professors and education professionals (particularly those from poorer countries where the corruption problem is perceived as systemic) were focused much more on the integration of anticorruption education for younger students, at the high school and early college ages, with the express purpose of influencing the students’ values. That setting is, I think, a much harder one, and I’m curious as to how some of my professional brethren who work in those contexts think about some of the issues I flagged.

      • I wonder if, when it comes to influencing students’ values in environments where corruption is systemic, the tension between research and advocacy that Matthew highlights above is eased somewhat because educators must deal with students’ lived experiences?

        The first instinct amongst advocacy groups may be to fight corruption in all forms, but supporting research may come up short. This could be a good thing. Maxim Mironov’s work, for example, has multiple times illustrated that in the right circumstances corruption can lead to economic growth. A 2013 paper indicated that corrupt managers may produce higher revenues, though only in smaller firms, and a 2005 paper made the value-laden distinction between ‘good corruption’ which fosters economic growth and ‘bad corruption’ which impedes development. His research demonstrates that corruption may not always be the Big Bad Wolf, sometimes it’s Little Red Riding Hood looking for a shorter route through the forest, a conception that I would guess is pretty well understood in societies in which corruption is endemic. Advocacy efforts that ignore this fact have lost half the battle. Rigorous and nuanced research can help isolate access points where value teaching can happen, the points where the scales tip and the real or perceived drawbacks outweigh the real or perceived benefits.

        Research is of course open to manipulation, as Matthew and Elizabeth discuss below, but from a teaching standpoint, as Chris points out, students are not blank slates. High schoolers may not be as contrarian as law students, but many of them, particularly in poorer countries with higher corruption rates, have firsthand experience in how corruption helps and hinders. It seems to me that to be effective, value teaching must line up with students lived experience rather than overarching policy goals, making reliance upon solid and transparent research a necessity.

  2. During a group discussion at the Boston federal courthouse yesterday, we focused on a version of this issue. In that context, an academic and a judge expressed their views on the merits and drawbacks of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The creator of that database has used FOIA to publicize information about judicial decision-making, which has been a boon to researchers and a (perceived) blow to the judiciary. At any rate, a central question in the discussion was whether academics should, essentially, censor their research based on its potential effects.

    This post describes situations in which activists seek outcomes and enlist researchers to build evidentiary support. But I am wondering how academics confront the tension on their own, when research comes first and activism comes second. Are there scenarios – particularly in the field of corruption, a sensitive, controversial topic in many areas of the world – in which you can imagine omitting research findings due to potentially adverse consequences?

    I realize that this question is not an easy one to discuss candidly – it may imply that academics either exercise or should exercise a sort of willful blindness in “follow[ing] the evidence where it leads.” Personally, I think that the integrity of research is paramount. But I also believe it is important to acknowledge that what happens in the ivory tower doesn’t always stay in the ivory tower (believe it or not!).

    • The issue you identify is a real one, though I think it comes up relatively rarely. (Most academics, especially in the social sciences, are painfully aware that the majority of their research is likely to be ignored entirely.) In the context of corruption research it might come up, for example, if an academic committed to fighting corruption finds evidence that calls into question the claim that corruption is bad for economic development. But my instincts are the same as yours: in almost all circumstances, the integrity of research is paramount, and in the long term (I like to believe) a commitment by academics to that principle will do more good in the world than selective self-censorship or other distortions. But I acknowledge that there’s a plausible argument on the other side, which was part of the point of the original post.

      I think maybe a more realistic and prevalent concern has to do with the risk that research findings might be willfully or unintentionally distorted (or oversimplified) by people with a political agenda. Then the question academics have to struggle with is how, and how much, they should try to prevent such distortions or oversimplifications.

  3. Pingback: Corruption Currents: From Europol, Banks in Cyberfight to ‘Operation Fox Hunt’ | Guess Who Leads the Bribery World?

  4. Pingback: The Roles Of Anticorruption Academics And Advocates | Anti Corruption Digest

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