Unsolicited Advice for Academics Thinking About Government Service

By Mike Dorf

Much of the attention in DC over the last few days has turned to John McCain's efforts to prevent Susan Rice from becoming Secretary of State--apparently so that the post can go to his fellow failed Presidential candidate, John Kerry.  Meanwhile, ambitious current and former under-secretaries of this, that and the other thing and deputy directors of something else are no doubt polishing up their resumes in the hope of moving up the DC food chain in the second Obama administration.  For many such people, the endoscopic questionnaire is a small indignity to bear in exchange for the chance to serve the public interest and/or exercise vast power.

Some number of the applicants for positions in the administration and--should the president get around to filling vacancies--Article III judgeships, are academics, which may prove problematic.  After all, in modern times, a strong academic record of publications provides opponents of any potential nominee with considerable source material to mine for objectionable statements.  Academics thus have a "paper trail" that other sorts of nominees often lack.

Accordingly, if you are an academic with an existing paper trail, you may already be disqualified from various high offices on the ground that something you wrote can and will be used against you.  But what if you are a fledgling academic or one who, because of the nature of your topics, has not yet written anything that a determined opponent can turn into a liability?  Should you avoid writing such things in the future?  Here I want to give a little advice--speaking as someone who is likely unconfirmable on any number of grounds.

My core message is simple: You should never do your current job inadequately in the hope of securing a different job later.  The whole point of academic freedom is to liberate academics to say what they truly think, without fear of adverse consequences.  It doesn't work perfectly, of course.  Prior to receiving tenure, junior faculty may be very cautious about what they write.  Even after they have tenure, many academics will spout conventional wisdom or otherwise avoid controversial positions because they want to curry favor with those who exercise power in their discipline.  But at least in principle, we have job security in order that we may speak the truth, as we see it, and let the chips fall where they may.

Now suppose that you are an academic with the ambition of entering government service.  Suppose further that there is some topic as to which your best academic judgment is X but you know that X is an unpopular view.  If you would otherwise be inclined to write an article or give a lecture espousing X, then you are doing your job badly if you keep quiet simply in the hope of remaining viable for some government position.  Note I am not merely saying that you can't espouse not-X.  That goes without saying, because saying not-X when you believe X would be affirmatively dishonest.  I am saying that you have an affirmative duty to say X rather than remaining silent on the subject, if your reason for remaining silent would be to get some other job for which a history of saying X would be seen as disqualifying.

We would be better off in a world in which people with a history of saying controversial things were not disqualified from positions of public power, indeed, where a history of free thinking was deemed a qualification.  But we don't live in such a world and therefore those of us who are lucky enough to have academic jobs should do those jobs as they were designed, rather than trimming in the hope of securing some other job.