How to land a bowling trophy

October 27, 2006

In its drive to join the global elite, Manchester University has signed up Harvard's Robert Putnam for a transatlantic social change project, but the experience left him feeling like an 'Easter Island head', he tells Stephen Phillips.

Robert Putnam confesses that being headhunted by Manchester University as part of its drive to hire "iconic" scholars made him feel like a scalp. "You feel a bit like an Easter Island head," says Putnam.

Earlier this month, he was named director of a far-reaching research collaboration between Harvard University, where he is professor of public policy and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government, and Manchester, where he will hold a part-time visiting professorship for five years.

The wide-ranging project will track social change in the UK and the US through a series of comprehensive comparative studies. It will culminate in five annual reports covering civic engagement, immigration, religion, work and inequality that aim to provide "actionable" policymaking insights for political leaders.

Alistair Ulph, Manchester's vice-president and the dean of its faculty of humanities, says: "This is a distinctive attempt to try large-scale cross-country collaboration across a range of projects." He adds that officials are talking to a "major media organisation" about tie-ins that could include TV documentaries or debates on research-related issues.

In pursuing Putnam, Manchester conducted what sounds like a full-on political campaign. Putnam says he was contacted by Cabinet ministers who tried to persuade him to say "yes", which shows how serious the Government is about bringing top researchers to UK universities.

And Putnam is no stranger to the world of top-level politicians. After the publication of Bowling Alone , his signature work on "social capital", he was invited to address Tony Blair's Government as well as the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Putnam is just the latest coup in a hiring spree that could see Manchester give the city's celebrated football team a run for its money in star power.

The university has set itself the goal of becoming one of the top 25 research institutions worldwide.

Last November, it announced that Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank, would head a new interdisciplinary institute investigating ideas for tackling poverty and redressing inequality. Stiglitz has also taken up a visiting professorship. Such appointments are a key part of Manchester's global strategy, which is fuelled in part by an official assessment that found that the university lacked "iconic scholars compared to other institutions", Ulph says. With Putnam, "we wanted someone who would be recognised not just within the field but outside as being world-class".

Putnam fits the bill. He shot to fame with a 1995 journal article that charted the reduction in civic engagement in the US since the 1960s. It detailed declining membership of community organisations, waning participation in communal activities and shrinking political involvement as expressed in activism and voter turnout. The growing popularity of bowling amid falling membership of bowling leagues epitomised this. Putnam blamed the trend on low-density urban sprawl and "electronic entertainment" that has "privatised leisure time".

He amplified the article in Bowling Alone , his 2000 bestseller, which struck a chord with politicians seeking ways of increasing national "social capital". The book shows how a lack of social capital causes high levels of delinquency and other social problems and ultimately undermines democracy.

It resonated so widely, Ulph says, because Putnam put his finger on a widely sensed but only vaguely articulated malaise. Since then, he has turned his attention to ways of building social capital.

Putnam is enthusiastic about the Manchester project, calling it "neat" and "really unique", although he admits that initially a redbrick university such as Manchester was an unknown quantity to him, given that his prior experience of British universities had been confined to Oxbridge - he was a Fulbright scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, in the 1960s and, more recently, a visiting professor at Cambridge University.

But the fact that the project focuses on five topics in which Harvard already has research under way alerted him to significant overlap between Manchester and Harvard researchers, existing ties between individual faculty and complementary strengths. He says this academic fit, rather than contacts from "several British government officials" or conversations with Stiglitz, whom he knows "a bit" from a White House function, ultimately clinched the deal.

Putnam will be at Manchester three weeks a year for an annual postgraduate summer school and will visit on other occasions "as appropriate". But although he is the headliner, Ulph says the project transcends any one individual - it involves Harvard specialists in each year's research topic spending two months a year at Manchester. The university also plans to add three chairs and four research fellowships in related fields.

Then there are the benefits of reflected institutional glory that, Ulph hopes, will draw top students. "Having the link to Harvard will give us significant reputational benefits," he says, adding that the initiative should improve the UK's standing in "hard-nosed empirical (social science) research" in which it is perceived as "weak". All those taking part share a desire to have an impact outside academe, Putnam says. He adds that "academics can never change history, but maybe can bend it a little" and he feels an "ethical" imperative to contribute to the public debate on social issues. For him, Manchester establishes more of an "English base" for such efforts. In fact, he has enjoyed "better access to senior government levels" in London than he did in Washington DC.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was called in to brief senior Bush officials, and some of his language was incorporated into presidential speeches at the time, he recounts. "It was the kind of opportunity for civic renewal and community building that comes once or twice a century. It was a very big deal; everyone was ready to become engaged." But he says it was an opportunity that has been squandered. The post-9/11 exhortation for Americans to "go shopping" to promote economic growth "was a tone-deaf response", he says, while "tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in the middle of the War on Terror made the statement that we're not all in it together", he says. "What makes me angriest is that (the Administration) was given, from a civic point of view, a marvellous moment and completely blew it."

Putnam's observations are particularly apposite given US soul-searching on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. A New York Times editorial, for example, lamented the failure of politicians and others to harness the goodwill prompted by the attacks. And earlier this month, former Bush aide David Kuo alleged that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, the cornerstone of the Administration's professed "compassionate conservatism", designed to get religious and community groups to perform social services, was little more than a sham to woo evangelical voters whom administration officials privately mocked. The White House has disputed the charges.

But while British officials may be more receptive to his ideas right now, Putnam admits it was partly Manchester's US-style hustle and enterprise that attracted him to it. "They've been quite entrepreneurial. I admire their ambition," he says.

For their part, Manchester officials are not resting on their laurels. On September 30, Putnam received the Skytte Prize, considered one of political science's top honours in the absence of a Nobel prize in the field. That is all very well, but even though university leaders are pleased with their scalp, Putnam is not counted as one of the three Nobel laureates Manchester is seeking by 2008 and the five they want by 2015, Ulph says. But he already has a Nobel in his sights. Watch this space.

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