why activism and academia don’t mix

Over Eric Grollman’s blog, there is a nice essay on blogging, academia, and activism. Eric provides an interesting note about the differences between white graduate students and students of color:

In a 2009 sample of 1,473 doctoral students, African American and Latina/o doctoral students ranked as their number 1 and number 3 reason to attend graduate school, respectively, to “contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US”; “contribute to my community” was number 2 for Latina/os. The top three reasons for white doctoral students were to “grow intellectually,” “improve occupational mobility,” and “make a contribution to thefield.”  All these years of feeling my work was urgently needed to make a difference, while my white colleagues were merely curious about the social world, now had confirmation.

This passage raises a number of different issues. For example, students of color often come from financially strapped backgrounds, so academia is a step up. In contrast, white students likely come from more comfortable backgrounds so mobility isn’t the issue.

The big issue, and one that captures Eric’s attention on his blog, is the divide between activism and academia, one that student’s of color don’t accept so much. Why do we “beat it out’ of graduate students? The answer, in my view, is that academia and activism are simply different things. Every activity has a bottom line. In politics, it’s votes. In business, it’s money. In religion, it’s souls. Activism is about promoting social change, which is a different bottom line than academia, which is knowledge generation.

And look around – academia is built for scholarship. We are cloistered on our campuses and  in our laboratories. We pore over journals that few people read. Our main ritual is the seminar, not the protest. To be blunt, we simply don’t have the tools that you need for social change.

Social change is a wholly different creature. If you want to influence policy, you need money, or you need a bloc of voters, or you need to sue someone. You may need friends in the media. Or a few thousand friends to show up at a rally. The work of social change is about these activities, not pumping your CV with articles in the right journals.

I’ll conclude with a few comments about the relationship between activism and academia, which is the topic of my book on the Black Power movement and its impact on the academy. What I learned is that academia is about itself and that people who enter it are under great pressures to conform. Much in the same way that an executive is only rewarded for bringing in the next account, academics are rewarded for scholarship. The Black Power movement tried to change that dynamic and experienced very little success. The main reason is that people pay money to university for prestige, which follows research, not activism.

Does this mean that I think academia should abandon activism? Absolutely not! But my views do have consequences. First, most professors (and graduate students) will continue to be rewarded to research and teaching. Academic jobs that reward activism are rare. Second, understand that until one gets tenure, most of one’s time will be spent doing academic work. Third, if you are serious about social change, you will do things that get you no reward in the academy. Activism will be done because you care about it even though your boss won’t.

Academics do have a role in social change. And I don’t mean the Chomsky’s of the world who sit around and speechify about the man. Rather, I mean the academics whose work leads to tangible improvements. I think of people like Kenneth Clark, who helped litigate Brown and desegregate  American schools. Or someone like Norman Borlaug, the biologist who helped the green revolution get off the ground by creating high yield crops that helped millions escape starvation. Academics do have a role in social change, but if you look at those who were successful you’ll see that they mastered their discipline and built a foundation of knowledge. In other words, professors who create social change aren’t the activists, they’re the ones who are really good professors and spent most of their time creating knowledge.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 31, 2013 at 12:52 am

11 Responses

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  1. Yet, if you’re a conservative activist and you can garner six figure grants from conservative foundations, mixing activism and career is not so bad. Particularly if you only come out as an overt political activist after having made tenure…..


    March 31, 2013 at 2:07 am

  2. The students of color in this survey did not say they were going to graduate school to become activists–they said they were going to graduate school to contribute to their communities and to the advancement of people of color. Both are goals that can reasonably be achieved in academia, whether by being a role model that makes a career like one’s own seem more attainable, by mentoring students, or by providing inspiring teaching that helps the next generation see the world in new ways.


    March 31, 2013 at 3:52 am

  3. It’s also worth noting that the students of color in the survey, if Latino, appear to have also listed “grow intellectually” as their #1 reason, just like the White respondents, and “grow intellectually” was the #2 reason for Black respondents.


    March 31, 2013 at 4:15 am

  4. I agree with Mikaila. While I also agree with both Fabio and Eric that graduate programs try to beat the activist out of students (and students who resist and grip tightly to the activist in them generally flail), these findings aren’t clearly about activism. I am far from an activist, but if I had been given this survey and it was about gender instead of race, I would have probably chosen something about the “advancement of women” thinking about the role that my mentors who had gone to graduate school before me had played in my own life and not explicitly about activism. Even with the survey at hand, I would have seen my original goals of teaching at a community college or writing a textbook as entirely consistent with “contribute to my community” and not about activism in a conventional sense. I wonder if any differences (and, as Jeremy notes, we’re overlooking the marked similarity across groups in “grow intellectually”) are more about white privilege and/or career goals (even within the academy) than activism.


    March 31, 2013 at 2:07 pm

  5. Thanks for the shout-out, Fabio! And, thanks to the commenters above for your take on the ASA survey. A few related points:

    First, I encourage you to read my original blog post in full, which is an encouragement to blog, and reconsider how knowledge is disseminated more broadly. I use the ASA survey to support my effort to persuade others to blog; it is not the primary focus of the blog post: – But, you can see my full take on the ASA survey:

    Second, this is an interesting example of inferring from our own perspectives. I see three skeptics above, that take the time to remind me that contributing to one’s marginalized group and/or one’s community does not necessarily mean activism. This post, which was an essay for the ASA Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities (SREM), appeared to resonate with many scholars of color and/or race scholars. Of course, I do not know everyone’s view, and I’m sure some agree with the thoughts expressed here; but, there is a stark contrast to the agreeable reception among SREM members, compared to the skepticism here among some orgtheory readers.

    Third, I’m inclined to disagree that activism and academia do not mix because there is no one form of activism, nor one narrow way of being an academic. My existence in a Historically White College or University (HWCU) with the audacity to study racism and communities of color is subversive. I see my efforts to disseminate knowledge beyond the walls of the ivory tower as activism, as well. All academics are not alike, nor are all activists.

    I suggest that a more fruitful discussion would be how to support other scholars, be they activists or not, in their efforts to create new knowledge, capture and understand other forms of knowledge (academia isn’t alone in knowledge generation), and dismantle the walls around the ivory tower.

    Eric Anthony Grollman

    April 1, 2013 at 10:50 am

  6. Did Kenneth Clark’s “doll study” find differences between segregated and integrated schools? I sometimes find claims that it did (and the Warren court’s citation claims it is finding an effect of segregation), but other times it is characterized and showing the same results in both kinds of school, and that the same results were found decades later after integration. Does anyone know where an ungated version of the study can be found?

    Wonks Anonymous

    April 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm

  7. To me a real intellectual, be he/she in social or natural sciences, must be an activist, or, scholars have been relegated to knowledge workers. We think therefore we challenge (in thoughts mostly and sometimes in behavior). I cannot think of any great intellectual who is not an activist. Some scholars regurgitate, some assemble, others inspire and motivate. Depending on how activism is defined, I hope every orghead is an activist.


    April 1, 2013 at 6:04 pm

  8. [...] why activism and academia don’t mix ( [...]

  9. [...] skills and reward you for different kinds of achievements, therefore they don't mix together: why activism and academia don’t mix | Reply With [...]

  10. [...] private exchanges, I was honored to be the subject of another blog post by Dr. Fabio Rojas: “why activism and academia don’t mix.”  Fabio [...]

  11. total twaddle
    the reason students are discouraged from activisim is (a) it results in fewer publications; the activism might be a better thing, in every sense of the word better, but fewer papers means less grant money…
    (b) most professors, esp those in the top, elite research university, are members of the 1%; to take a specific example, sociologists and economists derive great advantage from illegal immigrants – they get cheap gardeners and nannies and waiters at resturants
    the implicatio is that most tenured professors do better from a consevative right wing approach

    not to mention the insecurity of the academic: academic fights are so bitter because the stakes are so small

    ezra abrams

    April 22, 2013 at 1:25 am

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