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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Extracurricular Activities

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

Politics professors outside the gates.

By Somer Omar

In the middle of our conversation, Peter Clement’s phone rang and he asked if I could wait outside. As I sat just two and a half feet away from his shut office door, I could essentially hear the entire conversation that he perhaps tried to prevent me from hearing. Something about the Russians telling the Americans to bring it on. In that moment, I wondered who was the better intelligence gatherer.

Peter Clement is a Visiting Professor of International and Public Affairs at SIPA. He is on what can best be described as a “sabbatical” from his eight year position as Deputy Director for Intelligence for Analytic Programs at the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. Launched in 1985, the Officer in Residence (OIR) program at the CIA pays an officer, like Clement, to take up a research or teaching post at an academic institution to strengthen ties between the academic and policymaking communities. A page on the CIA website devoted to outlining the history of the OIR program, under the subheading of “The Importance of Not Being ‘Spooky,’” emphasizes that the most valuable exchanges between an officer and the resident institution are when the officer’s position is openly acknowledged. And in fact, Clement seemed genial and decidedly un-spooky.

I first met Clement while speaking with Professor Austin Long, another SIPA professor with roots in the policy jungle. Long previously worked at the RAND Corporation, and, according to the SIPA website “served in Iraq as an analyst and advisor to the Multinational Force Iraq and the U.S. military.” Long and Clement are two policy denizens taking up residence in an academic institution, and I couldn’t help but wonder if an opposite trajectory was possible, where a professor involves him or herself in the policymaking community.

Long seemed hesitant to fully commit to that idea. I asked why he thought Political Science professors didn’t more actively involve themselves in policymaking decisions. He plainly stated that, rather than devote themselves to policymaking, “the goal of every professor is to get tenure.” And after tenure, a professor’s standing depends, almost exclusively, on their academic publications.

My back was to his office door and I saw his eyes dart right before he spiritedly pointed at someone behind me, seeking affirmation. He grinned: “Right?” The stern faced, rather beefy, former military advisor relaxed into a more playful disposition. I turned to meet Peter Clement, bespectacled and smiling. He had wandered into Long’s office to ask about an administrative task and ended up speaking with us more extensively about why professors weren’t always best suited to contribute to policy making. He and Long insisted, “there’s just not enough time.”

Their point was that academics seem to prefer to gestate and mull over a topic while policymakers have to respond to more time sensitive tasks. And while the policy wonk duo may be right in assessing how Political Science professors generally work, Columbia professors are something of an anomaly. Just within the surrounding office space of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, there were several Political Science department professors with ties to the policymaking community.

A 1951 New York Times article noted that “In a lecture in March, 1950, the general [Eisenhower] expressed hope of founding the institute ‘to study war as a tragic social phenomenon.’” Former President of Columbia and the U.S., Eisenhower established the institute intending to promote research that would help the world avoid war. This seems more tenable if and when professors are engaged in policymaking.

Professor Robert Jervis, a prolific academic writer and very well known political scientist with experience working in the security policy community, claims that “Research at Saltzman and other institutes has contributed to both the public dialogue and to the ways in which many policy-makers see the world […] I think we have helped.”

Jervis is not alone in this belief. Professor Jack Snyder’s office is directly across from Clement’s at the Saltzman Institute. When I approached Snyder for a meeting, he said that we’d have to postpone it until after he returned from Washington D.C. ; he was invited to advise a group of policymakers on security policy. And while I didn’t cull much detail about the provisions of the meeting, Snyder noted that it is fairly common for Columbia professors to be invited to advise on issues in the capitol.

I asked him what he thought of Nicholas Kristof’s then recent NYT op-ed titled “Professors, We Need You!” where he laments that “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.” Snyder insisted that, in the fact, the opposite is true. Academic writing is easily accessible, but people “just don’t read it.”

Professor Richard Betts is the current director of the Saltzman Institute and throughout our exchange, he seemed at the very least tickled by the fact that I was asking why more professors don’t shape policy. With a slight smile, and referring to policymakers, he noted, “you just hope they read your stuff,” a somewhat deceiving statement given that Betts is fairly well known in the security committee and has previously served on advisory panels. Betts clarifies that he doesn’t think there’s “active hostility” between academic political science and the policymaking community but that the academic “discipline has become more indifferent.” There is little academic glory for a professor who is involved in policymaking. To compare, he quips: “[Now,] Kissinger and Brzezinski would not get much credit.”

In 2003, more than two dozen professors signed a petition that was placed as an advertisement in the NYT titled “War With Iraq is Not in America’s National Interest.” The ad stipulated that the Middle East foray was not sufficiently supported by evidence and would be an ill-advised move. Of the thirty three professors, four were from Columbia, the most professors from a single university on a roster that included those from Stanford, Harvard and the University of Chicago. All four Columbia professors are housed in the Saltzman Institute. Snyder pointed to that effort as evidence of how publically engaged Columbia Political Science professors are but tartly noted that, clearly, “no one listened.”

Addressing the curious relationship between academic political science professors and their policymaking counterparts, Professor Page Fortna, Chair of the Political Science department and also a member of the Saltzman Institute, observed that “There’s always been a bit of a divide in policy work and academic work in political science and a little bit of kind of mutual snobbery […] that’s been less true here than at other institutions I’ve been at. Of the other top ten political science departments, I don’t know of one that has as close a connection with the policy school. [Partly] because were all just here in the same building.”

But what specifically compels Columbia professors to be more inclined towards policy related work? Surely physical proximity was not the whole story.

Fortna claimed that “there’s no material incentive, there’s not a professional incentive to do it but there is a, I don’t know what the, some sort of non material….”

I tested the ideological waters. “Do you mean a kind of moral imperative?”

“Yeah. Sometimes there’s a little bit more ego tied into that. It’s wanting to change the world both to make the world better but also to be somebody who changed the world.”

Fortna herself was drafted to meet with a Colombian negotiator who sought her advice about peacekeeping, the focus of much of her research. She advised them to consider the role that peacekeepers might play in safeguarding the country during its civil war.

“They haven’t reached a peace deal yet […] If they end up with a peacekeeping mission will that be because I told them that? Who knows.”


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