What was historically an ongoing, discreet discourse between federal officials and academics has slowed under recent administrations, and it may take a presidential turnover and the passage of time to reinvigorate those ties.
The decrease in communication, which has been noticeable for the last 40 years and continues to persist today, is due to a growing government, increasingly qualified officials within the administration and a general federal distrust of academics that has existed since the late 1960s. But the combination of the 2008 presidential election and shrinking numbers of Baby Boomers in both academia and government may lead to an invigoration of academic consulting in the coming years, professors said.
Many high-profile professors — including history professors John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy — have advised the President and others on policy issues. But the Yale faculty does not have as rich a history of involvement as that of some other schools, emeritus history professor Gaddis Smith ’54 said. Whereas Henry Kissinger flew back and forth from Cambridge to Washington during his time on the Harvard faculty, few if any professors have played similarly integral roles in government while still teaching in New Haven.
“The fact is that Yale traditionally, by that I mean going back 100 years or more, was not heavily involved on the faculty side in government,” he said. “Alumni is another question. The first significant time was around the First World War where you had especially the connection — and this was illustrated and distorted in ‘The Good Shepherd,’ — … with intelligence.”
The line of graduates who have joined the ranks of various governmental organizations may, in part, have contributed to the rift between Yale professors and Washington. International studies professor Charles Hill, who has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, said that as government employees obtain more advanced degrees and become increasingly specialized, the need to bring in experts from academia wanes. It is easier to go to an in-house expert than to look across the country for an academic.
But Hill added that the divide is more than one of practicality. The distance between academia and government began to grow in the late 1960s, under President Lyndon Johnson, and has persisted since.
Prior to Vietnam, Watergate and the growing distrust that developed during the presidencies of Johnson and Richard Nixon, presidents relied heavily on academics as a source of new perspectives and knowledge. Both Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, Jr. surrounded themselves with intellectual advisers.
But Vietnam bred a relationship of skepticism between government and academia, Hill said.
“Before that time there was a general understanding that intellectuals and academics generally supported what the American government did, regardless of which party controlled the presidency,” he said. “But after that time, the generation that had its formative years in that period was more inclined to question and resist … the U.S. government in almost anything it did. It was the creation of an adversarial culture toward the American government.”
Now, much of the discourse between government and the country’s universities has become more indirect. Professors publish papers that publicly question policy, and government officials only make occasional phone calls to experts on anything from foreign policy to education reform.
But Yale President Richard Levin said the University encourages government officials to seek out professors for consultation.
“Our Office of Federal Relations will sometimes suggest to congressional committee staff members of our faculty who are experts in certain areas,” he said. “To some degree we do promote them. After all, we have outstanding intellectual resources here on campus and a lot of expertise on issues of public concern. That said, many of our faculty are already known by congressional staff and are naturally sought after.”
The divide between government and academia is less noticeable when it comes to domestic policy. Professor Frank Keil, a developmental psychologist, said he recently served on a National Research Council committee charged with investigating how children’s minds grow in elementary and middle school and how this should impact science education policies. He also spoke this fall with the Surgeon General about children’s health literacy and implications for health policies.
Keil said he feels a duty to communicate with the government and contribute whatever insights he might have.
“I think you’ll find that an enormous number of Yale faculty engage in similar activities in Washington,” he said. “It’s just one way of providing some small degree of service to the field and to the broader public.”
Keil said that he has not noticed any major changes over time in the relationship between government and intellectuals, especially on domestic issues, where he is involved. Because of the vastness of the government and its various agencies, a wide range of political persuasions receive a hearing regardless of who is in the Oval Office, he said.
Nevertheless, the personality of the President does affect the involvement of academics, especially those closest to him, Smith said. A change in 2008, even to another Republican, will alter the tone of conversation to some degree.
“The Bush White House really is not comfortable engaging in critical dialogue,” Smith said.
Also, many of those in government and academia that first became involved in politics in the late 1960s will soon be too old to participate in policy decisions. As Baby Boomers age, Hill said, the skepticism and wariness that has defined the last 40 years may fade in favor of more direct interaction between universities and Washington. The combination of a new president and the waning concentration of older, possibly more adversarial personalities may fuel a new wave of communication.
A more open dialogue between the White House and professors at Yale and elsewhere might encourage a more frank exchange of ideas. Those working within the walls of various federal office buildings sometimes withhold dissent, especially that which may become public, Hill said, so academics may find it more attractive to advise from within the University than from within the government.
“When you’re inside the government you really are pretty significantly constrained to work within the parameters of the president’s policy,” he said. “When you’re in the University you’re free from that and you’re free from the necessity of having to watch what you say because you might be quoted by the media as being critical of an administration when you are in that administration.”