Does the U of M faculty share its work with the public enough?

Don’t be so reticent (Center for a Public Anthropology)

It looks like the University of Minnesota needs to show us news hacks a little more love.

The Center for Public Anthropology recently issued a ranking that put the U 83rd overall out of 94 universities in how much its faculty in the social sciences communicates with the public through the news media.

It scanned 6,000 news sources over a five-year period to see how often each of the 13,000 faculty members studied were cited. It calculated the average citations per professor for each university and then compared that to the amount of federal funding each campus received.

Broken down, here’s how five University of Minnesota departments ranked:

Anthropology: 30th

Economics: 77th

Political science: 75th

Psychology: 83rd

Sociology: 81st

The U’s most-cited professors were Larry Jacobs of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Kathryn Pearson of political science, and William Beeman of anthropology.

(You can see a full list of faculty and how they rated here.)

Why does this matter?

Officials from the center say it raises some key questions, mainly:

1) How much does public funding obligate faculty members to share their insights with the public at large?

2) When making decisions about tenure and promotion, should universities assess a professor’s total impact by including his or her citations in the news media?

Emory University professor George J. Armelagos tells The Chronicle of Higher Education that having faculty members in the news media can draw attention to their departments.

But he explains why faculty engagement isn’t higher:

… Academic culture often dissuades faculty members from seeking the spotlight, particularly if they are early in their careers and have yet to firmly build their academic bona fides.

“The senior people will think you’re trying to establish your career by popularizing and getting notice in the newspapers,” he said. “You don’t want to be thought of as not wanting to pass the microphone.”

The Chronicle adds another reason given by Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner:

There is also little reward and large risk to faculty members engaging with the news media … Complicated ideas often get misinterpreted, misrepresented, or stripped of their nuances. Or reporters simply get things wrong.

And if a faculty member is too good at talking to the news media, he said, that can be a problem, too.

“The perception is that if you’re quoted widely in the press, you’re an empty head,” Mr. Drezner said.

  • John Pastor

    Dear Mr. Friedrich,

    In my experience, the main reasons why faculty members don’t wish to talk more often to the press is because you guys either get things wrong, make snide comments about the work we do, or ask the only question many of you seem capable of asking, namely “What good is your research?”. This includes Minnesota Public Radio.

    But that doesn’t mean that we don’t talk or work with the public. Every one of my grad students gives a public talk on their work to some conservation organization such as the Izaak Walton League, Audubon, etc. I myself sit on two boards – The Minnesota Nature Conservancy and the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation. I and my colleagues and our grad students visit high schools to present their research, judge regional Science Fairs, mentor high school students interested in a career in research, and answer questions from the public about everything from “What is this bug?” to “Why are the birches dying?”. You are not the only outlet to the public.

    And we do take a faculty member’s interactions with the public seriously when making tenure decisions.

    John Pastor
    Dept. of Biology
    University of Minnesota Duluth
    and
    Sustaining Member, MPR