Citizen Scholars

Theda Skocpol

“Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors,” New York Times columnist (and Harvard Overseer) Nicholas D. Kristof ’82 wrote earlier this year in an op-ed calling on professors to engage more with public life, “but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.”

That essay probably rankled most across the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN), a nationwide organization of more than 400 academics dedicated to integrating scholarship into public policy by forging connections with policymakers, civic groups, and the media. Members of SSN’s steering committee—including its founding director, Thomas professor of government and sociology Theda Skocpol—issued an open letter detailing SSN’s efforts since 2009, and other scholars from the network joined in. Political scientist Amy Fried and sociologist Luisa Deprez, co-leaders of SSN’s Maine chapter, published an op-ed entitled, “No, Kristof, Academics Aren’t Cloistered Like ‘Medieval Monks.’”

References to the Kristof kerfuffle elicited good-natured groans during SSN’s two-day retreat in Cambridge this June—but the episode underscores challenges that motivate, and at times impede, the group’s work. (Reached by e-mail, Kristof offered: “I love Scholars Strategy Network and think it’s a model for connecting smart researchers with the public and policy-makers….There’s no one solution to the problem, but SSN is great at building bridges to span that divide!”)

 “We all realized that there’s so much excellent research and so many good ideas in the hundreds of colleges and universities,” Skocpol [who is an Incorporator of this magazine] recalls of SSN’s founding conversations. “But partly because American academia has expanded enormously over the last half-century, the conversations have turned inward—each specialty talking in its own private language.” In academia of late, “the conversations have turned inward—each specialty talking in its own private language.”

This disconnect, she agrees, has hurt public policy. She cites immigration debates in which legislators clamor for taller fences, ignorant of research showing that fortified borders don’t reduce illegal immigration, but do increase costs, keep undocumented workers from going home—and ultimately prompt them to bring in their families. “It’s a perfect example,” Skocpol remarks, “of how policy produced the exact opposite of what was intended, because people didn’t understand how immigration works.” Such examples prompted SSN, she continues, to try linking scholars to policy: “How can their work, their voices, their persons get more connected to the broader process of democratic politics?” 

One answer has come through contact with national legislators. SSN was originally organized regionally—its members, hailing from 40 states, are spread across 19 chapters—but the group recently formed nationwide issue-based groups. Its criminal-justice group held a congressional briefing on mass incarceration, co-hosted by Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and the Congressional Black Caucus, this past May. 

Perhaps more important, noted Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) at SSN’s retreat, have been the group’s efforts “beyond the Beltway.” The regional chapters—partnering with local civic groups and media outlets—have notched some of the network’s most significant victories. SSN’s 15-member Southwest chapter, for example, has worked closely with a New Mexico organizing group called Somos Un Pueblo Unido to study illegal wage withholding among employers of immigrant workers across the state. Their findings provided ammunition to Somos in seeking legislation to expedite wage-theft court cases; Governor Susana Martinez signed the legislation last year. 

SSN Southwest has also focused on Affordable Care Act implementation in New Mexico, holding public lectures, sending members to testify before the state’s Legislative Committee on Health and Human Services, and meeting (while Skocpol was visiting) with the editorial board of the conservative Albuquerque Journal to discuss whether Martinez, a Republican, should expand Medicaid under the law. “At one point I looked across the table,” Skocpol recalls, “and I said, ‘It’s really the taxpayers of Massachusetts who will be paying for healthcare for your poor people here in New Mexico.’ And one of the editors piped up and said, ‘Well, if we accept this, does that mean we might not have to pay as much in local taxes to help the hospitals pay for the care of uninsured patients?’ ‘Yes, that’s what it means.’ Everybody nodded their heads.” A few days later, the paper accepted an op-ed from Skocpol and a Democratic state senator on the topic, and then, unexpectedly, the board endorsed the expansion themselves. Martinez ultimately agreed. 


Although SSN has built ties with policymakers and civic groups, perhaps its most natural constituency thus far—as the Albuquerque Journal anecdote suggests—has been the media. Avi Green, M.P.P. ’99, SSN’s director of civic outreach and development, points to several trends that make the group’s work supportive of the media’s, including the “tremendous economic pressure facing newspapers—particularly regional newspapers”; the “proliferation” of news websites with space to fill; and the hunger—evident in the rise of explanatory journalism sites—for “strong, empirical, interesting research.” 

Both Green and staffer Linda Naval advise SSN members on how best to pitch their work to media outlets, and the investment has paid dividends. SSN members have been cited in the news more than 1,500 times in the past year, and their articles are regularly accepted by national and regional publications. The Maine chapter has a weekly column in the Bangor Daily News, and a monthly series, “The People Next Door,” that examines how public policy affects individual Mainers. Skocpol is quick to point out the democratic advantages of such a wide net: “I get more excited when we get something in USA Today than I do when we get something into the Times, because USA Today is in every hotel room across this vast country.” 

One striking feature of SSN’s model is the group’s 2011 decision to become a content creator. Its chief output—and prospective members’ price of admission—is the “two-page brief.” Skocpol calls the policy “both simple and extremely challenging. But it’s the right challenge, because it represents what people who join need to learn to do: take an underlying book, article, or topic they know a lot about, and boil it down to two pages of crisp, clear English with no insider terms of any kind—no jargon, no acronyms, no methods-speak.” 

Beyond providing a vehicle for translating complex scholarship into clear prose, the group’s roughly 450 briefs published to date serve as a valuable organizing tool. “The theory is that if something costs nothing, it means nothing—that’s why we insist” on a first brief for membership, Skocpol explains. “Once we discovered that, then the thing took off—because there was something for each person who joined to do.” 

The membership requirement underscores what Skocpol calls the network’s “profoundly ‘small-d’ democratic structure”: “There are a lot of Ivy League professors, there are a lot of Harvard people—but there are also people from community colleges, from state universities, from small colleges. Everybody’s equal.” This federated, democratic, volunteer-driven structure harmonizes with Skocpol’s own scholarship: in her 2003 book Diminished Democracy, she laments the bygone dominance of “major voluntary membership associations” inspired by “America’s federally organized republican polity,” and their more recent replacement by “professionally managed advocacy groups” with large, centralized staffs and no chapters. SSN has three full-time staff members and an annual budget below $1 million. Only two donors, Robert S. Bowditch Jr. ’61, LL.M. ’68, G ’92, and David desJardins, have funded the group since its inception, though SSN is now enlisting several “SSN Supporters”—benefactors who will donate between $10,000 and $25,000—to match its growing membership (each chapter gets a small stipend from headquarters to fund events and outreach). Skocpol calls it “one of the best buys in all of public life.”

It’s also a prime example of a scholar joining theory to practice. In Diminished Democracy’s conclusion, Skocpol argues that “new strategies for translocal association building must be devised”—and her colleagues are quick to praise her for devising one. Larry Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and member of SSN’s steering committee, suggests that Skocpol “has had more impact on public policy than any other scholar over the last 40 years—and this may be her most important impact.” 

Despite its progress, SSN still faces obstacles—including several trends Kristof identified—chief among them, according to several members, the “publish or perish” culture of tenure committees, which are loath to credit “nonacademic” work. “Making your research accessible…has to be a hobby,” laments Cynthia Rogers, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma and co-leader of SSN’s Oklahoma chapter. “My colleagues will say, ‘Great, thank you,’ in the halls [if I publish an op-ed], but when they’re assessing me, it’s, ‘What are your publications? What are your citations?’” 

Scholars must also work to whet the public’s appetite for their deliberately sober offerings. Few see this obstacle as insuperable. “Most people—if you asked them, ‘Would you rather eat healthy green vegetables or highly processed artificial foods with lots of chemicals in them?’—would pick the vegetables,” contends desJardins, a mathematician, software engineer, and member of the MIT Corporation. “But they don’t love vegetables so much that they’re going to eat them if the processed food tastes good and the vegetables taste bad.”

And there are charges—voiced recently by former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, M.B.A. ’66, LL.D. ’14, in his Harvard Commencement address—that academics are not impartial arbiters of policy, but rather boosters of the partisan left. SSN’s leaders admit that their membership likely skews progressive, but emphasize that the organization remains nonpartisan. (SSN’s membership does include scholars, like Georgetown University’s Matthew Kroenig—a hawkish national-security expert—whose work diverges from liberal orthodoxy.) “I really believe,” says desJardins, “that if we have policies that are more based on facts, I’m going to be more happy with those policies...[Liberals and conservatives] all have good things to bring, but I think all of them could benefit from having better facts and reasoning behind their policies.” “We don’t inquire into people’s political commitments,” Skocpol maintains. “But we celebrate their commitments as citizens, whatever they choose to do.” 

That support means a great deal to many of the network’s scholars. “I was almost in tears when I talked to Theda about this,” recalls Shauna Shames ’01, Ph.D. ’14. “I’ve been caught between wanting to do good research and wanting the research to be relevant—and sometimes too much of the latter is seen as not enough of the former. To believe that they could be mutually reinforcing is revelatory.” Shames worked at an activist organization before beginning doctoral studies; she left, she says, because she wanted to know that what she was claiming was true. “The danger,” she remarks, “is you go into academics and you can find truth, but then most people can’t benefit from it.” SSN “is trying to combat that,” she concludes, “and I don’t think there is any higher calling as an academic.” 

SSN continues that work of joining insight to action, even if the mindsets of politics and the academy sometimes conflict. At one point during the SSN retreat, a member asked, rhetorically, “What does success look like?” and then supplied a tentative answer: “Basically plagiarism—having a scholar’s ideas picked up and put into a piece of legislation without attribution.” 

Professors around the room chuckled. Jacobs’s eyes lit up. 

“That’s not plagiarism,” he called out, grinning. “That’s influence!”

Michael Zuckerman ’10, a writer and a resident tutor in Lowell House, begins his studies at Harvard Law School this fall. He is also the author of this issue’s feature article “The Lowell Speeches Project.”

Read more articles by Michael Zuckerman

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