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Facing the challenges of serving the public as an academic

What does it mean to be an academic? To be an academic working in environmental law? One part of our multi-faceted role is what I am calling “public service”—trying to make our small portion of the world a slightly better place. Public service is difficult. Its demands, however, are rather similar to those we face in our broader academic life.

We serve the public throughout our job description, whether pursuing knowledge for its own sake, or helping others learn to think deeply and critically. But I am concerned with efforts to use academic knowledge and expertise to do good beyond the university. I have been reflecting on my experiences in post-Brexit environmental governance (working with NGOs, appearing before Select Committees, talking to civil servants and other participants in this debate). The sheer emotional and intellectual labour of public service should not be underestimated.

We face four striking challenges when we move beyond the university. First, we must largely expect to do this work without credit. Not because other people are cheating us of our just desserts (although that happens), but because public service is genuinely collaborative. Our contribution as academics is small, inseparable from the expertise of other individuals and groups, and from their relationships with other allies and antagonists. And our contributions are tied to our broad disciplinary expertise and our life experience, our ability to form relationships and to build trust—not necessarily to specific publications.

Taking credit matters in academic life, not for its own sake, but because we are expected constantly to perform our achievements for measurement (for Research Excellence Frameworks and Teaching Excellence Frameworks, for promotion). Collaborative public service fits uncomfortably into this culture.

Second, working with unfamiliar audiences demands fresh skills, and can challenge the ways we understand our own expertise. I have been fortunate to work with some talented and generous people, and building trust among a community is the same anywhere. But we are outsiders, and we may face difficult moments.

Third, we need to find a way to continue to be truthful to our own expertise. There is often a tension between rendering our expertise accessible, and insisting on the legitimacy of its complexity, a tension between influence and (if not truth) perhaps an acceptable form of completeness. Similarly, where do we place the limits of our expertise? When do I speak as an expert, when do I speak as a lay person? We might push our expertise out of an instinct to be useful, out of ego, or because we are fully politically committed to an issue. 

And fourth, we necessarily enter the broader debate about the relationship between scholarship and advocacy or activism. Maintaining a clear divide between our research or scholarship and advocacy might seem to be the provisional answer to the dilemma—but such clear divides are rarely sustainable, and environmental lawyers more than anyone understand that placing our “selves” in our scholarship is inevitable.

These challenges are genuinely difficult, and are especially visible in public service. But importantly, they demand the same sort of intellectual integrity as our broader academic lives. Whether teaching, researching, or working beyond the university, we have the same obligation to work with fairness and honesty. In all parts of our work, we should strive to be even-handed, open-minded and self-critical, even as we recognise the elusiveness of objective expertise. And most of our work involves somewhat public commitments, with the same risk of being overly committed to earlier claims as in public service. Being able to change our minds, and to be wrong with some grace, is an important academic quality—elusive, and hard to pull off, but important. 

Time is short, and we need be conscious of where we put our energies. So why do public service? Why undertake this challenging work, which doesn’t fit neatly into established categories of institutional reward? Most obviously, because we have something to offer. Legal scholars are able to subject sets of related issues to sustained focus, without having constantly to respond to the latest crisis, the latest legal development or the latest demand from a client. This persistence gives us, at our best and not uniquely, a depth of analysis that is set firmly within an understanding of the broader institutional context. We should also bring a level of independence to the table. Even if we recognise that academic work cannot be entirely above the political fray, being able to speak only for ourselves, rather than for a group or constituency, is an enormous privilege. 

More personally, working outside the university can be rewarding and enjoyable, learning from new experiences and talented new people. With luck, we have the satisfaction of a job well done. But a moral imperative of service is probably the ultimate driver. This is not to say that we should all be desperately engaging all of the time; public service might be what Richard Watermeyer calls a “workload extravagance.” We can only afford a workload extravagance at particular stages of our lives and careers, with the right sort of institutional support, and for things we care about very much. 

Sustained public service is difficult, but it is also potentially rewarding. Importantly, it is not so different from all of the other parts of our academic life, demanding basic qualities of scholarly integrity. 

Featured image credit: Books-students-library-university by Pexels via Pixabay.

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