About a month ago, The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof wrote a much-discussed column calling for academics to take on a greater role in public life. Most professors, he lamented, “just don’t matter in today’s great debates,” having instead burrowed into rabbit holes of hyper-specialization. PhD programs, he wrote, “have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Professors, Kristof pleaded, “don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks—we need you!”
Shortly before his column came out, Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, longtime professors at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, learned that they were losing their jobs because they hadn’t brought in enough grant money. Both, ironically, are models for the sort of publicly engaged intellectual Kristof wants to see more of. Vance has done pioneering work on the intersection of gender, health and human rights. “She has been a mentor and a leading influence on generations of scholars as well as activists and practitioners,” says Rebecca Schleifer, the former advocacy director for the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. Hopper, who divides his time between Columbia and the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, is both an advocate for the homeless and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on homelessness. Last year, American Anthropologist ran a piece highlighting his work beyond academia, noting that Hopper “has long urged anthropologists to take part in public debates, to translate ethnographic ﬁndings into policy proposals.”
His termination, along with Vance’s, suggests that scholars have good reason not to take this advice. Kristof is right that universities have become inhospitable places for public intellectuals, but he misses the ultimate cause. The real problem isn’t culture. It’s money.
Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants. (Many professors there, including Vance and Hopper, work without tenure.) Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent—and professors say that it’s become a hard rule, with less room for the cross-subsidization of those who devote themselves to teaching or whose research isn’t attractive to outside funders. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health, the primary source of grant money, has seen its budget slashed. These days, only 17 percent of grant applications are successful—a record low.
The result is an increasing focus on the bottom line over a broad engagement with social issues. “One of the costs of this push for federal funding is going to be a depoliticization of the scholarship at Mailman,” says a professor there who asked to remain anonymous for fear of administration reprisals. “You can’t do great public health without engaging with politics.”