Activism in the Academy

A couple of years ago, I found myself surrounded by respected faculty colleagues, discussing a book proposal that I was preparing. The topic of the book is economics and animal ethics, an area of significant disagreement. My own convictions are well-outside the mainstream for Christian economists in the Mid-west, and I am a junior faculty member, so I was somewhat taken back when a colleague asked “Is this book going to be objective? Or will it be advocacy?” I wanted to answer “Yes.”

For an academic who cares deeply about the brokenness of the world, it can be tempting to make political and cultural activism a central part of their calling. Whether it is community organizing to aid the poor, writing for political organizations, or protesting on the streets, there are numerous practical and overtly political outlets for a person’s talents and passion. The mixture of politics with academics can be a minefield, however, especially for junior faculty and those whose activism is tied up with their religious convictions. I would like to offer here a brief reflection on the problems facing politically active academics, and some guidelines for proceeding.

This reflection is personal for me, as one who was drawn to the study of economics and politics out of a deep conviction that there are profound problems in the world that are solvable. The lure of activism is ever-present, and is borne out of the same instincts that fuel my love of teaching and scholarship. Most recently, I have found myself delving into the world of animal ethics. In the process I have participated in events with animal rights activists thinking about law, policy and economic systems. In jumping between the world of animal activism and Christian liberal arts education, I constantly have to manage conflicts of culture and expectations. For other academics the political cause may be very different, but the conflict may be similar.

The central conflict for a politically active academic is between two opposing visions of what the job of a university faculty member should be. On the one hand, academics often strive to be impartial, analytical, objective, and “above the fray” of political passions. What is at stake is nothing less than your academic credibility. An economist who works for a political organization is suspect. Some will worry that their political or ideological goals will pervert the search for truth, that their work will be bent by the quest for political success. This is not unlike suspicion of faculty at Christian colleges because of perceived demands to toe some theological party-line. For a junior faculty member in particular, as you are still building your reputation for quality teaching and research, the charge of being “politically motivated” rather than “objective” can be devastating. The easy way to achieve intellectual purity, then, is to avoid the practicalities of political movements, keeping the debates and conflicts at an arm’s length.

In the classroom, moreover, political conflict with students can be difficult to navigate. Students may come to the classroom with strong convictions, and be sensitive to “indoctrination” by faculty. This concern is sometimes warranted, moreover, since faculty have power over the material presented and evaluation, and the potential for abuse of that power is real. In an age of politically sensitive students, political advocacy in the classroom is an invitation for dissatisfaction, complaint, and perhaps worse, poor evaluations.

On the other side of this conflict is the ever-present reality of a world that demands change. For those of us who spend our careers studying the problems of modern life, it can seem impossible to genuinely study and know the nature of violence, oppression, or cultural change without acting in some tangible way. Studying poverty without taking any action to help those in dire need is obviously problematic. If we want to bring genuine passion for our discipline into the classroom, moreover, we cannot ignore all controversial political topics, nor pretend that such topics are outside the realm of moral obligation.

How can an academic balance these priorities? Must we avoid controversy in the name of academic credibility? I hope not. Here are some basic principles that guide my own balancing act:

1) Christian First, Activist Second

In the acrimonious world of political activism, it can become easy to get caught up in the “us vs. them” conflict, and affiliate more closely with your political allies than your theological allies. Knowing this Christians should intentionally preserve their connections to a Christian community first and foremost. Holding to your Christian identity prior to your political convictions can help foster charity and humility, intellectual virtues that moderate the antagonism of politics. Even as I work for a world in which animals are treated better, and are afforded natural lives, I am constantly reminded that millions of Christians, who are also following the movement of the Spirit, disagree with me.

2) Respect Students as Intellectuals

In the classroom I will openly share my convictions with students, but rarely as a part of the curriculum. I tell students about my project, or that I try to eat a vegan diet, and then invite them to talk with me after class if they want to know more. In this way I hope to model activism while keeping class curriculum, and the evaluation of students, largely independent of my own convictions. Some colleagues that I respect have managed to explicitly combine teaching and political action, and this works only when they treat students as intellectuals who are able to make legitimate but different judgments about the issues at hand.

3) Complement your activism with scholarship

As scholars, we have unique skills and gifts that are powerful and useful in political activism. Working toward a particular political cause is usually best served by maintaining the highest standards of research and scholarship. The more controversial your research topic, however, the more important it is that your work can withstand the scrutiny of your peers. Rather than being pulled away from your life as a scholar to pursue political change, it is possible to combine these elements of your life by turning your best analytical skills toward these controversial questions. The church is always well-served by having academics speaking to controversial topics through their expertise.

These guidelines don’t eliminate the possible professional hazards of political activism, but they might help you plan your efforts to avoid some of the pitfalls. There will always be some corners of the academy where it is impossible to be a pro-life activist, and other corners where animal activism is impossible. Prudence is an essential complement to political passion for someone who is in this profession for the long term.

Print Friendly

Steven McMullen

Steven McMullen is an assistant professor of economics at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He specializes in education policy, as well as ethical and theological dimensions of economics. He is also a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and currently the associate editor for social sciences for Christian Scholar's Review. He is currently working on a book about animal ethics and the economy. Most of his writing can be found at http://stevenmcmullen.wordpress.com.

More Posts

One Comment

  • dchen.05@gmail.com'
    theurbanresident commented on July 6, 2015 Reply

    This is a much needed perspective on an understated often internalized conflict for not only those in academia but any profession where instruction or a “power differential” exists. Too often are those in relative authority censured from any activist (read: strongly held perspective) in today’s post-modernity, depriving students as well as all looking for leadership from a spirit of full disclosure and, ironically, learning opportunities.

Leave a Reply