From campus to Capitol and back again

In America, it is common for academics to play a prominent political role. Jon Marcus reports

November 6, 2008

When Donna Shalala, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was named the American Secretary of Health and Human Services by President Bill Clinton, she became just one of many academics in the Clinton Cabinet.

There was also Madeleine Albright, a professor at Georgetown University who became Ambassador to the United Nations and, later, America's Secretary of State. Lawrence Summers, who was professor of political economy at Harvard University, served as Secretary of the Treasury. And another Harvard professor, Robert Reich, was Secretary of Labour.

Shalala, in turn, appointed scores of academics to lead departments below her, experts in the areas she wanted either to change or provide leadership for.

"They came from some of the most distinguished universities in America," Shalala says. "Many of them had also had leadership experience, some in government and some at universities. And it's easier for academics to leave (and take a job in government) than it is for people who are running a company."

These remain among the reasons for the disproportionately large number of academics who continue to serve in the American government under both political parties. President George W. Bush's current Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was a professor of political science and provost of Stanford University. Bush's Secretary of Defence is Robert Gates, a former president of Texas A&M University. His Secretary of Energy, Samuel Bodman, is the former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Engineering Practice. Serving as Bush's Trade Representative is Susan Schwab, a former dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.

And the presidential nominees of both parties have scores of academics among their advisers and potential appointees in this election season.

"I wanted to control the bureaucracy," says Shalala, who has returned to academia as president of the University of Miami. "The only way to control the bureaucracy is to hire someone who knows the subject as well as they do or better than they do, and who they will respect. So you hire a Nobel laureate at the National Institutes of Health who can command the respect of the civil servants."

But there are other reasons, too, for the comparatively higher number of academics appointed to political positions in America.

Eugene Huskey, a professor of political science at Florida's Stetson University who has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, says: "Surely the most obvious is that there are many more appointive posts at the top of the US administration."

To be exact, there are 7,000 appointive positions available to an American president Huskey points out, compared with 100 selected by a British prime minister.

And he offers another reason: "The British Civil Service attracts more highly qualified personnel than its American counterpart. The most talented university graduates in the US tend to gravitate to the academic or business worlds. Thus, promotion from below in officialdom may produce a level of expertise in Britain that would only be possible in the US with lateral moves from the academy or industry."

The phenomenon of academic involvement in government took root with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a Harvard graduate but law school dropout. He packed his Administration with smart young academics from Columbia University and Harvard - his so-called Brain Trust - both in traditional positions and as behind-the-scenes advisers to help him revive the economy and banking system amid the Great Depression and, later, to wage the Second World War.

The long tradition of tapping scholarly talent speaks well of the regard with which academics are generally held in America, observers say - though this is not always the case.

Murray Weidenbaum was chairman of the economics department at Washington University in St Louis when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Treasury by President Richard Nixon. He describes the "double-edged sword" of his appointment, recalling the many times he and fellow academics were "subjected to congressional and press criticism for being a bunch of intellectuals".

On the whole, however, Weidenbaum says, academics are good at translating ideas into policy - if not always at implementing them. "Our stock in trade is ideas, so if you're promoting a new agenda idea people are helpful (as are) people who are used to explaining phenomena as opposed to issuing orders."

Not every academic is a good manager, Weidenbaum concedes, although some have been outstanding. He singles out George Schultz, a former Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State, who came to government after serving as dean of the fractious faculty at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "Anyone who can manage that can definitely work in government," Weidenbaum quips.

Most academics make the transition smoothly, he says, and many go back and forth from their campuses to the halls of government - he himself also served as chairman of President Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers.

Academics have an advantage over heads of business when it comes to navigating bureaucracy, explains Weidenbaum.

"You're used to dealing with people with different backgrounds, different viewpoints, and arguing and convincing is your stock in trade." He says he finds that heads of large industrial firms who are used to having their orders carried out often have a rougher time making the adjustment than those who have worked in universities.

But things can move even more slowly in academia, Shalala says. Merely trying to change a university curriculum, she says, paraphrasing a former dean at Harvard, is like trying to move a graveyard.

"From the point of view of an administrator, working in government is easier. It's more hierarchical and, in fact, I was very good at it because running a large, complex Cabinet department is very similar to running a complex research university."

But there are drawbacks. "First of all, the Government doesn't run on a semester system, so it's faster. You have to write faster, you have to think faster, you have to make decisions based on not having all the information, as opposed to maybe writing a paper where you have all the time in the world."

She said a fellow Cabinet Secretary once told her she would never hire another academic. When Shalala asked why, the colleague responded: "Because you guys don't work in the summer. Your heads sort of tune out in the summer."

Of course, not all academics in government rise to the level of Cabinet secretary.

"One reason perhaps that a Shalala or a Weidenbaum would report favourably on their experiences is that they're a lot higher up," says Tim Brennan, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Maryland who served on the staff of Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers in 1996-97.

"I certainly saw other people who were frustrated, lower-level people who, right or wrong, went to work at various agencies because of ideological interests" and came up against career bureaucrats who were "extremely sensitive" about being told what to do - whether they were being ordered about by intellectuals or by political operatives who spouted slogans rather than substance. "A lot of people just love that sort of thing, but it drove me crazy."

Brennan says that he found he was able to fall back on his university experience in other ways. "Universities are political institutions and have their own political constituencies, so trying to have things happen by consensus is something people try to do in both kinds of systems."

Of course, that does not always make academics particularly good politicians. Samantha Power, a professor of practice of global leadership and public policy at Harvard's Carr Centre for Human Rights, was forced to resign as an adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign this year after embarrassing the candidate by injudiciously calling his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton "a monster".

Most academics who have served in government said they were pleased to return to campus. "It's been a great change of pace," Weidenbaum says. "If you really are academically oriented, you want to get back into a position where you're not putting out fires but working on more long-term projects."

There were, however, drawbacks to being back on campus, and not just missing the convenience of the White House limousine.

"When I came back," says Weidenbaum, "I joined a faculty table in the cafeteria and one senior guy just got up and left because I had served in the Nixon Administration. But that's rare. Most people just want to know, 'hey, what was it like?'"

Shalala says she has no plans to return to government. But she draws on her experience of it to teach a course each spring about the politics and economics of healthcare. With 250 students, the class has the largest enrolment of any at the university. The university-government connection, she says, "enriches higher education".

Notwithstanding Weidenbaum's faculty colleague, most universities seem to enjoy the reflected glow of professors' government experience. Washington University renamed its Centre for the Study of American Business in Weidenbaum's honour.

Brennan is often amused to hear the president of his university refer to him as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers when, in fact, he was a staff adviser much lower down in the hierarchy.

"From an institutional perspective, I think it's good to be able to mention any distinction that faculty get. I'm not saying I get big raises because of these things, but when you're in a public-policy programme it helps attract students (if we can show) that we're not just a bunch of ivory-tower academics, that some of us have had government jobs, served on commissions, done reports."

Weidenbaum agrees. "Certain top management of the university like having in their academic ranks people - and this is not just me - who were senior officials in government. And it doesn't hurt in the fundraising area to have a Republican."

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