Why many academic departments should be replaced with “think tanks”

Glenn Loury has an important essay up on his website, Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of “Political Correctness” and Related Phenomena”. A classic “read the whole thing.” But I want to highlight one section:

Sociologist James Coleman, perhaps the world’s leading scholar of educational policy, recalls that in 1976 the president and a number of prominent memembers of the American Sociological Association (ASA) tried to have him censured for the “crime” of discovering, and announcing, that citywide busing for school desegregation purposes caused White flight. This claim had been denied for years prior to Coleman’s research, and far reaching social policies had been erected on the presumption that it was not true.

40 years later the same attitude is prevalent in much of sociology and has spread to anthropology and other fields. The reality is that the idea of objective scholarship is an illusion. We all know that “think tanks” exist to promote certain ideas and viewpoints, often due to funding strings attached. I know of people who have changed their views, and so have had to change their affiliation (or, simply not published in areas that they knew would not be well received by their institution).

Academia, with the freedom of tenure should be different. But it’s not. The reason it’s not is that it is a social enterprise, and the esteem of one’s colleagues is more important than the abstract idea of freedom to explore what you want. There are strong incentives in many disciplines to toe a particular line, and humans are conformists and they do as they’re expected to.

If all debates come down to politics and power, then putting them in the domain of think tanks makes it more honest and clean.