The Globalization of Knowledge and Free Agent Public Intellectuals

Dan Drezner links to a David Ignatius column in the Post about America’s high education dominance, and then excerpts a counterpoint from this Foreign Affairs piece ($) by Johns Hopkins president William Brody who says continued U.S. preeminence in education will be neither easy nor likely. Below, he notes the "free agent" trend encroaching on the academy — just like entrepreneurs can now operate from anywhere in the world, never work on a 9-5 schedule, and are known for who they are more than their strict professional affiliations, public intellectuals are following.

The loosening of the affiliation between faculty and universities is an inevitable consequence of the globalization of knowledge. In the quantum physics model, faculty obey a kind of uncertainty principle: you may know where a professor is at any given time or you may know his institutional affiliation. But the more you try to ascertain the former, the less sure you may be about the latter, and vice versa. This phenomenon prompted the former president of Boston University, John Silber, to actually propose taking roll call to see whether faculty members were on campus. But such a measure would go against the grain of how knowledge is generated and diffused in today’s information-sharing environment, and Silber’s proposal unsurprisingly has come to nothing.

One consequence of these changes is that the relationship between faculty and universities has become more and more one-sided. Tenure provides a lifetime, no-cut contract for faculty. But professors’ and researchers’ allegiance is linked to their research, and they have no requirement to stay until retirement with the university that granted them tenure. At the same time, faculty whose field of study becomes obsolete or is no longer within the primary purview of the university’s mission cannot be removed. This is a potential Achilles’ heel for world-class universities bent on remaining relevant in an environment that places a premium on research and development and evolves at a rapid pace…

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