Panel explores how scholars can influence policy amid politics


The knowledge and research scholars produce is often valuable in helping shape policy and combating social inequities. But navigating the public sphere in today’s political climate can be challenging.

On Thursday, a panel of scholars addressed ways to overcome some of those challenges and help faculty make a bigger impact with their research.

“Navigating a Highly Politicized Landscape: The Role of Scholars in Policy” was hosted by U-M’s National Center for Institutional Diversity and co-sponsored by the Ginsberg Center, the U-M Office of Research, and Public Engagement & Impact.

Kristina Ko, assistant vice president for research-federal relations for research, said Congress is more politically polarized today and it’s difficult to get legislation passed. That has changed the way some scholars approach policy in different ways — some are energized to be involved while others prefer to stay out of it.

But that doesn’t change the approach she takes in providing timely information to lawmakers. When an issue in their field is being debated in a legislative body, that’s when it’s time for a scholar to come forward.

“We work really hard on developing good relationships with all of our congressional members regardless of politics,” Ko said, recommending that U-M scholars contact the Office of Government Relations for guidance.

Photo of Laura Perna, William Elliott and Kristina Ko
William Elliott, professor of social work, speaks during Thursday’s panel discussion about ways academics can influence public policy. Looking on are Laura W. Perna (left), of the University of Pennsylvania, and Kristina Ko (right), assistant vice president for research — federal relations for research. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

William Elliott, professor of social work, said the goal when dealing with legislatures shouldn’t be to get something in particular passed — it should be creating programs that make a difference.

“It’s not a matter of lobbying the legislature to get things passed. It’s about moving the people to press them to get the kind of change you need,” he said.

Building relationships with think tanks, professional organizations and research centers is another way to spread a scholar’s influence. Those relationships not only offer different perspectives, but they often have the ability to connect research with a wider audience via press releases, blogs and policy summaries.

“It’s more about shaping the conversation,” said Laura Perna, James S. Riepe Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy. “If you can find opportunities to be part of the conversation, it’s an important way to help inform these issues.”

The panel also addressed the fine line between informing a conversation and advocacy. Elliott said the term “advocate” is sometimes used to discredit someone, but that academics have to do a better job of realizing that people have values and will view data through that lens.

Moderator Tabbye Chavous, NCID director and professor of education and psychology, talked about the ways in which identity can shape how people perceive information that comes from scholars from underrepresented minorities.

“The work is not neutral and the bodies that do the work are not neutral,” she said.

Establishing one’s expertise, writing outside academia, doing interviews, learning how to prepare understandable policy summaries, and engaging with policy makers and think tanks all take time. And while the academic culture is changing in many places to value this activity, it’s often not formally recognized in faculty promotion and tenure, the panelists noted.

That creates a challenge for all scholars who want to engage. Perna said it might be time to think about ways to include indicators of public impact in the tenure and promotion process, such as letters from non-academic associations a scholar has worked with.

How to measure such impact for faculty promotion is part of the public engagement discussion at U-M, with schools and colleges exploring various ways to recognize and value such efforts.


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