The inventors or discoverers of knowledge should be in the business of disseminating that knowledge.
Jagdish Sheth, Kellstadt Professor of Marketing

Join the discussion
Should all scholars consider themselves public intellectuals?

The Public and the Intellectuals
Seeing and speaking beyond the academy

The intellectual and the bureaucracy
Is the intellectual necessarily an exile, marginal to the processes of culture and society? Excerpts from an Emory conference on Critical Conjunctions: Institutional Critique, Cultural Brokerage, and Cultural Display.

You can't say that everybody should be a public intellectual. People are diversely gifted. That ought to be something we celebrate.
Luke Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins

Rebuilding the "infostructure"
Technology transfer and the future of the university

Does your research concern Atlanta?

Further Reading
A University Decides That Its Ph.D.'s Should Be Able to Talk to Average Joes
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 1999

The Uncertain Value of Training Public Intellectuals
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 1999

Do Academic Giants Still Walk the Earth?
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 1999

Academic Exchange October/November 1999 Contents Page

Kellstadt Professor of Marketing Jagdish Sheth is oft-quoted in the business media on consumer behavior. In 1985, he was among a consortium of scholars organized by the Department of Commerce to examine the future of telecommunications. Their recommendations helped lead to the deregulation of that industry.

The Academic Exchange How do you define "public intellectual?"

Professor Jagdish Sheth An academic becomes a public intellectual by not only creating new knowledge but also actively, personally disseminating that knowledge for a wider impact on society. Traditionally, you publish in an academic journal, then somebody utilizes what you discovered or invented and makes it into some public good. A public intellectual does both.

Academics are often public intellectuals in the hard sciences and some social sciences. In this country scientists have had an enormous public impact through research contracts. Many universities receive large-scale contracts from the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example. There, the idea is that you as a scholar would target your research to help the government with a particular problem.

AE Do you think every scholar ought to be a public intellectual?

JS That is clearly the expectation society has, and every time we in the academic world do not do that, a criticism is levied. My view is that as academics we have to be socially relevant. Whatever we do, it's not just about academic rigor. Just the esoteric research by itself is not sufficient. To me, it's a tragic waste of human talent.

I also believe that the inventors or discoverers of knowledge should be in the business of disseminating the knowledge. It's a question of aptitude, of training, and I think some are better than others at this. We are educators, not scientists alone. If we were purely scientists, we should not be at a university but a research laboratory. We should be able to communicate what we create with equal fluency. I don't believe it's okay to be a top scholar and a poor educator. If you are not interested in or capable of being in front of the audience, whether it's a student audience or a large television or a newspaper audience, you should seriously question whether you want to be an educator. The best scholars have combined the two. Not everybody will be able to do both, but if you are an educator, that's a requirement.

Historically, the academy or university was primarily an education medium, very interactive. Unfortunately, much later, almost in the twentieth century, we began also to be driven by research contracts, where the education aspect was not connected to research contracts. The Department of Defense or National Institutes of Health did not say, "For you to create, invent, or discover knowledge, we insist that you should be able to communicate that knowledge to the public."

AE How do we correct that? Do we do away with the contracts?

JS I don't think it's a question of doing away with contracts. Afterall, the university is also a financial institution. It has budgets, governance, people, employees. Like any organization, profit or non-profit, it has to survive financially. Universities figured out that getting these research contracts is good business for them. I think the universities could now say: As we have told professors that teaching is as important as research, when they create some phenomenal research, it would be equally desirable for them to communicate as public intellectuals in larger forums.

AE Some say that one problem for public intellectuals is that they tend
to lose control over their ideas through misinterpretation in the public sphere.

JS If the academic involvement is too early in terms of conceptual formation, in terms validating the history and the facts, then, yes, it's possible that the stakeholders will use you for their own political agenda. Public opinion and the media still have a tremendous respect for professors. They would like to use our credibility for their own agendas.

One [way to avoid that problem] is to disseminate your knowledge in
a dispassionate way. I've always believed that a professor cannot and should not be a preacher. Some of us don't know where those boundaries are. Are we a professor? Are we a preacher? Or are we a politician?

Advocacy is the place where I believe professors must draw the line to say, the knowledge I've created is valuable to society. While I communicate as a public intellectual, somebody else can be the advocate. These are some very hard decisions. For example, as a scientist, should you ever be in the business of giving your creative talent that can be used for good or bad purposes? The answer is yes, you should, not necessarily because it will be used for good or bad purposes; you have to disassociate from that. You should be doing it for the sake of enhancing knowledge.