Does the scholar truly have an obligation to relate learning to the general public? Let me ask you: Do scholars have a responsibility to shine light in dark corners? To help good triumph over evil? To assist reason in the eternal war against chaos?
Yes, scholars do have a responsibility to interact with the public - and I personally question that proposition no more than I would question whether I have a responsibility to dart into traffic and pull a child to safety. I question the proposition no more than I question whether a physician has a responsibility to heal.
And I don't mean scholars should sit demurely on the sidelines, waiting to be asked to the dance. I favor aggressive scholarship of engagement, as it was termed by the late Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
But why do I feel so strongly about this?
First, and this probably has something to do with my Methodist upbringing, I think that anyone - not just scholars, but anyone - who possesses something of value is obliged to share that in some way with humankind. Scholars are uniquely positioned to fulfill this moral obligation when they possess something of value: facts, revelations, insights, thoughtful reflection. Pull the child from traffic, assist humankind's search for truth and progress. Both are moral obligations and both require active effort by scholars that go beyond simply sharing with other scholars in the tight little world of academe.
Second, I believe there are institutional reasons why scholars must engage out there, beyond the Arch. My nose for news, developed over 45 years in the news business, tells me there is looming - just beyond the horizon - a societal audit of higher education, a re-examination by society of who we are, what we do, how well we do it and at what cost.
In terms of the money we spend and our impact on society, we are big league - very big league, indeed - and I believe that, as the Chinese say, we will live in interesting times, just as does every other institution in society. Like the institutions of business, or government, or religion, we will come under intense scrutiny. The unrest - nationwide unrest - over tenure is just the tip of this hidden but very real public concern. By engaging the public now, by building true partnership with society, scholars can build public support against what I truly feel is a gathering storm.
Third, I believe scholars have a duty to their discipline - their art form, their life's work - to actively engage the public mind. A proliferation of media has contaminated the public dialogue in America. The Internet alone, in 24 hours, spreads more lies, more scams, more inaccuracies than newspapers of the Yellow Journalism era spread in months.
Whether you are a scholar in chemistry, in agriculture, in English literature, there is - out there, circling the public mind at high speed - a great deal of misinformation, disinformation and lies about what you do, about your life's work, your professional love. You'll not counter that by writing yet another refereed article for your favorite scholarly journal. For the sake of your discipline, you must engage the public where the public lives.
Think, for example, of those in genetics whose very future could well be redirected by public reaction to the cloning of sheep - reported by self-appointed experts from special-interest groups sitting at a Mac keyboard in their basement as well as by an experienced science writer at the New York Times. To those of us in mainstream communications, new technology is permitting very strange people to crawl over the wall.
Fourth, I believe the scholar has a personal responsibility - a personal reason - to engage a wider public.
I don't think anyone can truly flower intellectually, can expand personally, without interacting actively and widely outside his or her discipline. Call it intellectual incest, call it narrow thinking, call it self-imposed isolation from the wider world - it's the stuff of irrelevancy, of becoming meaningless. However, the wider the horizons, the wider the scholarly thinking.
Bottom line: At every level - scholarly, institutional, personal - there is good reason for each of us to engage the public under circumstances and in terms the public can understand. Each of us does great good service by translating our specialty for those outsiders who do not understand.
There are many ways to engage the public but, of course, the avenue most often followed leads through the media. What? A scholar should actually talk to a reporter? A scholar should run the risk of talking to someone who might not understand, someone who might get it wrong if not gently led? Why not retreat to the privacy of our lab or our library and why not pull tightly around us the cloak of anonymity?
Well, you've heard what Willie Sutton, notorious bank robber, said when asked why he robbed banks: "'Cause that's where the money is."
Why should a scholar with something to share talk with a reporter?
'Cause that's how you reach the public.
Conrad Fink, the William S. Morris Professor of Newspaper Strategy and Management, directs the UGA Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies in the College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Formerly a foreign correspondent and vice president of the Associated Press, Fink delivered these remarks as part of a UGA Office of Instructional Development panel discussion on the scholar's responsibility to relate his or her learning to the public through the media. E-mail Conrad Fink at firstname.lastname@example.org.