In 1837, French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve wrote a poem comparing two French writers, Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny. Hugo (who wrote Les Miserables among other works) showed a keen interest in social justice and human suffering. De Vigny was more hermetic and “more secret,” Sainte-Beuve wrote, “as if in his ivory tower.” This is the first time the term “ivory tower” was used in this sense: a structure that was lofty and grand, but impractical and unreachable. It quickly caught on as a metaphor for academia. Today, scholars are still trying to shake off the notion that they are the de Vignys of knowledge production.
But there are all kinds of problems with the ivory tower myth—namely, that now, more than ever, scholars are trying to broaden the scope of their research. Academics are increasingly concerned about public communication, from blogging to social media. Mainstream publications like Aeon and Vox (and, closer to home, my company Hippo Reads) are encouraging scholars to publish about their ideas for general audiences. In one British study of 18,000 academics, the majority expressed a willingness to work with businesses to help the economy grow.
Meanwhile, outside the university, almost 80% of businesses rely on external partners to drive their research and development. But only a fraction of those partners are university-based. Are companies ignoring the potential for collaboration with universities? And if so, why?
Academics aren’t as hyperspecialized as you think
It’s a widely held assumption that academic research is too focused for a company’s broader needs. At the Shoreditch Digital Festival in London in 2012, researchers asked 80 workshop participants—a mixture of academics and industry professionals in technology fields—what the biggest obstacles were to collaboration. Industry’s answer? They were worried that their problems weren’t “interesting enough” for the researchers. Perhaps another way of putting this: they were worried that researchers wouldn’t care about work that wasn’t within their highly specialized niche.
But this worry may reflect the ivory tower myth more than academia’s current reality. In an academic climate where more than 76% of faculty are adjuncts, full-time faculty are given more responsibilities that adjuncts normally don’t do, such as sit on committees, advise students, perform administrative tasks, and participate in professional development (in addition to teaching). Only 17% of their work week is spent on their own research.
Plus, the dire state of hiring in academia means that many scholars and researchers feel pressured to publish as specialists, but teach as generalists. A newly-minted PhD may have spent three years writing her dissertation on women’s land rights in rural Chile, but she needs to be able to teach Economics 101 to a roomful of first-year students. For all but a handful of contemporary researchers within the university, academics need to be able to function outside their narrow specialty.
Technology is already breaking down barriers
The question of academics being too niche is increasingly being rendered irrelevant by technology, too, in two ways. The first is through open source software. Some of the most fruitful collaborations between industry and universities have been made possible when academic researchers have shared their know-how via open source software.
In 2012, teams from UC-Santa Cruz and the University of Washington built the Raven II robotic system, a medical robot designed to perform surgery. Using an open source platform not only let the researchers work with robotics manufacturers and gaming companies to produce Raven, but it allowed all the different medical research laboratories receiving the robots to have a research platform in common. That way, each member of the process could work according to their specialties and needs, allowing the entire innovation process to proceed exponentially faster.
A similar process occurred with the StreetScooter, an open source electric vehicle that was result of 50 companies working together under the leadership of Achim Kampker, Professor of Production Engineering at Aachen University. Open source technology may be the most important tool of the 21st century for research making it outside the ivory tower.
The other way that academics are pushing for their work to leave the ivory tower is through open access journals. Until recently, most academic publications were in journals that were prohibitively expensive to access. Top university libraries could pay thousands of dollars for a subscription (either in print or electronically—digital access is rarely less expensive) so that students and professors could view it for free. But unless the general public was willing to fork over $40 dollars for the privilege of viewing a single article, most academic publications would remain read only by a few scholars in the field.
But the past few years has seen major initiatives toward open access journals, which retain the credibility and high standards of traditional publications, but which are not sequestered behind paywalls. A 2013 study shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that open access papers are read and cited more than papers available only to journal subscribers.
Academics want to work for you
Even in the cases of open source software and open access publications, science and tech fields get most of the attention—the media narrative suggests that the next great tech innovation or science breakthrough could come to the public via one of these new, open channels. But if businesses are looking to university partners, it’s as important that private industry think outside the box as it is for academic innovators. In other words, scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts (what have been called the “soft” academic disciplines) can also provide fertile ground for industry partnerships.
The humanities, especially, is largely untapped territory—an odd omission given the popularity of the wisdom that humanities-degree holders make great private-industry employees. The same qualities that make humanities hires such valuable additions to companies—like the ability to step into others’ perspectives, synthesize information, perform analysis and think divergently—are the same ones that make humanities scholars innovative industry partners.
Academics in humanities and social sciences, facing an unprecedented lack of jobs in higher ed, are proving this by venturing forth into high level positions in a variety of industries. One striking example is Alexandra M. Lord, who received a PhD in British History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and left a tenure-track job to first become the the staff historian for the Office of the US Public Health Service, and then the National Park Service’s Branch Chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program.
Since 2015, Lord has been chair and curator of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History. It’s true that she left academia to still practice history in a public capacity—but many scholars in the “soft” disciplines stray farther afield. According to a 2014 Atlantic article, PhD-holders in these disciplines hold top positions everywhere from edtech companies to hedge funds.
The way forward
It’s rarer, though, that industry explicitly beckons scholars in fields like fine arts, humanities, or social sciences to partner with them. When partnerships do happen, they are usually initiated by businesses already invested in these fields, as when an an art gallery in Australia tapped a wide range of arts and humanities researchers from the University of Western Sydney when they hosted a large exhibition of Buddhist art. And one 2014 study showed that the majority of collaborations between humanities or social science researchers and non-academic partners are informal, and not recorded formally by the organization.
It’s important not to put unrealistic expectations on the potential for knowledge sharing between academics and private industry—businesses shouldn’t expect academics to be magical solutions to invigorating global economies. And some academics, quite fairly, feel that social utility need not be the ultimate goal of scholarly work. But far too often, universities get overlooked in industry’s search for collaborative partners. The door of the ivory tower need only be knocked on.
Image Credit: CC by Thomas Quine