Academic Exchange: Have you intentionally cultivated your role as a public scholar?
Jeff Rosensweig: I cultivated it after some years of trying to figure out who I am and who I’m not. I used to have some anxiety that there are many more accomplished academic researchers at Emory, and published academic research is still the currency of the university. I’ve done academic research, I was a leader in one or two small subfields, and I have tenure, which gives me some freedom. I’ve continued to do some writing. My belief is that at a university this large, people should strive for excellence, but we don’t all have to be excellent in the same way. That would also make for a very boring place. Evidence indicates that I have my effectiveness in speaking to diverse audiences, whether it’s to three hundred executives or two thousand teachers, going out and telling them something about the global economy and its implications.
AE: As a public scholar with expertise in the global economy, what are you goals?
JR: I try to lengthen people’s time horizon. Often, especially because we’ve been through this great recession worldwide, much deeper than a normal downturn in the economy, they want to know, “Are we out of the recession? What’s going to happen in the next year? Are we going to start creating jobs?” Such concerns are very important, so I try to work that in, but also as an educator I want to show them some historical or more recent trends that seem enduring, so they can get an idea of what the world could look like in 2020 or 2030. I try to get them away from helicopter economics or elevator finance: this is why the stock market went up yesterday; this is why it came down today. Focusing on that isn’t really going to lead to some deeper learning. However, showing them some trends so they could say that in 2011 everybody was talking about China, Brazil, Russia, and India, but Professor Rosensweig was saying, “What about Indonesia, Turkey, Poland, Vietnam, Nigeria, South Africa, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia?” Portraying trends can help them think in less myopic terms. I also try to teach them things that will make them better citizens. We have had such a decline of an intelligent kind of citizenship.
AE: From an institutional standpoint, why do you think it’s important for faculty who have these gifts to exercise them in the public sphere?
JR: I think we have to do some deep thinking about the university as it is currently constituted—is it really ideally suited for twenty-first century pressures? Increasingly, astute analysts are thinking that the traditional university is too expensive and isn’t really serving society’s needs. Probably, as many people get educated through TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] talks and through other modes, there’s going to be a diminution of the number of universities and colleges in the more traditional model. The ones that will survive are the ones that will adapt to this new world. Part of the ability to attract the best students and donors is having world leading academic scholars, but it’s also having the world’s leading public scholars and teachers. We have to think more deeply about how to still be a national research university but on the more successful multiple approaches and audiences model going forward. Do we have the courage to start getting there now? That means radically changing the incentive and promotion structures, ways that people communicate with each other, ways instruction is done.
AE: If you were giving advice to younger scholars who are wrestling with how to bring their work to the public without compromising their careers, what would you say?
JR: Emory is representative of the dominant model that still exists, which is to stick to trying to get publications in leading academic journals while you are a young scholar. But while protecting yourself by trying to advance academic knowledge, see if you can find ways to leverage easily off of that. I call it multiple targeting. Are there more trade-oriented and practitioner-oriented journals through which the same body of research can be written for a different audience, an audience that maybe doesn’t need to see all the equations? Or maybe you can strip the jargon out of it. I think a young scholar should not be intimidated into thinking there’s only one thing that counts. Rule one is realize there is a dominant academic research criterion that counts; rule two is know that Emory is evolving, as are other universities, toward looking for people who contribute in a broader way. To the extent you can, leverage off your own research where you really have an advantage by multiple targeting.