Funding big ideas, continued. Myth #3: The left has taken over American universities, so it doesn't need think-tanks.

Answer: There are a lot of reasons why academics at American universities don't exert the kind of influence that we expect from a think-tank like AEI or Heritage. Here are five reasons that come to mind. I'm sure there are more.

(i) Wrong audience: by and large, academics are not writing for politicians, lawmakers, or, heaven forbid, the public. Most are researching and writing for peer-reviewed journals. Even at law schools, where there is greater temptation to write for practical application, the pressures to publish means that articles are ridiculously long and jammed with footnotes that no practitioner would ever read.
(ii) Wrong mission: a lot of academics on the left have been consumed with cultural issues. For years, the new left has made important gains in areas like race and gender discrimination. But somehow big economic questions have been pushed aside. Richard Rorty has been criticized for harping on this theme, but I think he's right: “[W]e academics marched on the English department while the Republicans took over the White House.” There are deeper explanations for this that I’ll leave aside here. For now, the important point is just that one factor contributing to the political irrelevance of universities has to do with the research aims of left-wing academics.
(iii) No time: Matthew Yglesias is right that academics just don’t have the time. The job of an academic is to teach and publish, though not necessarily in that order of importance. Political engagement has to come much further down on a long list of priorities that include: writing articles, preparing coursework, advising students, attending departmental and other university meetings, etc. The mission of the university is not primarily political—which means that its employees are going to be diverted in other directions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s just one more reason why even left-leaning universities don’t exert the same influence as the think-tanks I keep mentioning.
(iv) No money: Myth #2 links up with Myth #3. Part of the reason academics don’t have time to work on generating and publicizing big political ideas is that they don’t have the money. And the reason they don’t have the money is because moneybags on the left aren’t willing to fund idea-generating projects. By way of comparison, consider how much money is spent funding the Law & Economics movement at American law schools. Check out these numbers, courtesy of Media Transparency.
(v) No coordination: even if academics had the right audience, the right focus, the time and the money, they would still lack coordination. If you were an entrenched chair at a department with huge financial backing, you might be able to build a group of academics with enough synergy to produce and publicize some influential political ideas. (To some extent, I think Amitai Etzioni has tried to do this--and with some degree of success.) You might be able to bring in the right people, to get them enough money to work on the projects they care about, and to get those projects the attention they deserve. You could set guidelines, however loosely, for the type of research that people would be expected to do. And you could provide incentives for them to get it done. In short, you'd be running a think-tank. Most chairs don't have the money, the power, or the political inclination to make this happen. What's more, we probably wouldn't want them to. We want universities to be places of research and learning, not engines for driving political ideas. That's what think-tanks are for. There will, of course, be significant overlaps. But we should stop perpetuating the myth that liberal universities are fulfilling the same function as beltway lobbying groups.

The myth that liberal universities are the left's equivalent to conservative think-tanks is the flip-side of the conservative canard that universities are dominated by the left. Conservatives will tell you that groups like AEI and Heritage were established because conservative scholars were shut out of American universities. There may be some truth to this, at least in some departments. I doubt it’s true today (partly as a result of efforts on the right), but, even if it is, the right has shown quite convincingly that scholars outside the academy can have enormous political influence. The left cannot rely on universities to take up the slack. It’s not going to happen provided the reasons noted above continue to hold.

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