Presidents agree engagement is part of academics’ obligation to society


Navigating the thorny issue of how academics could better inform public debate brought much accord from four university presidents assembled at the Rackham Amphitheater for a Michigan Meeting discussion Wednesday.

A keynote address Wednesday was open to the public, as will be one on Friday (see below). They, along with the President’s Panel, can be viewed online.

They agreed that being engaged in public discourse was part of academics’ obligation to society and is an important component of how the public views them. They also touched on the role of media in sharing their research and on social media.

U-M President Mark Schlissel told a group of academics from across the country gathered for the three-day “Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse” conference that being engaged is critical.

While acknowledging that engaging in debate “can get messy,” he said, “It’s complicated and requires sensitivity and caution, especially when discussing political issues.”

Schlissel was joined on the President’s Panel by Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University; Philip Hanlon, president of Dartmouth College; and Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia.

Discussing the topic of academic engagement on public issues were, from left, moderator Andrew Hoffman and university presidents Teresa Sullivan, Mark Schlissel, Philip Hanlon and Michael Crow. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Andrew Hoffman, director of the Erb Institute and Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, and a key organizer of the event that runs through Friday.

Hanlon said he agrees engaging on topics is an obligation. “The public invests a lot in higher education. We have an obligation to give back the fruits of our labor.”

Crow said that universities should be involved without being political: “The institution has to be above the process.”

Here we sit as the academy having created these ideas, these technologies,” Crow said. “We have this ubiquity of information. What we’re seeing is confusion. We haven’t articulated how information evolves and what is the hierarchy of information.”

Hoffman, also a professor of management and organizations, and of natural resources and environment, said social media has helped push these questions because so much faulty information is spread that way and then accepted by the masses as truth.

The presidents had a lot to say about social media, but it has its limitations.

“I don’t see the day coming when your tweets will be accepted as your research,” Sullivan said.

A 2013 survey of U-M faculty found 90 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that public engagement informs public discussions. And 56 percent said they believed such engagement was not valued by tenure committees. Hoffman said some are concerned they’ll be misquoted or otherwise misrepresented.

“Most journalists want to get it right,” Schlissel said. “It’s just hard to get it right when you’re an outsider. The serious media is trying to get it right. They are trying to attract eyeballs. … We have to make what we do interesting to the public.”

The meeting was attended by more than 200 people representing 36 institutions of higher learning such as Carnegie Mellon, Case Western, Florida A&M, Rutgers, Wayne State and Oregon State. They were from fields such as aerospace engineering, architecture, biophysics, business, ecology and evolutionary biology, English, medicine, political science and public policy.

Coming up Friday from 9-10:30 a.m. is a public keynote, “Good, Bad and Maybe: Communicating Scientific Near-Certainties and Deep-Uncertainties to a Non-Scientific Audience,” with Richard Alley, professor of geosciences, Pennsylvania State University.



  1. Amelia Roster
    on May 21, 2015 at 5:10 am

    Thanks for reviewing the event and throwing further light on the issue of academics’ engagement in public discourse.

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