Professors grab less of media spotlight

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo

Provost Steven Lerman discussed last year details of the strategic plan, which includes an emphasis on global partnerships.

Associate law professor Joan Schaffner balances teaching, meetings and research every day, but she also handles the media attention that comes with being one of the area’s leading animal law experts.

The director of the GW Law School’s animal law program, Schaffer said she is approached by the media every few months, something that may not be happening enough across the University.

GW ranked No. 76 in a Center for a Public Anthropology study that measured the number of times professors from social science departments in universities across the country interact with the media from 2006 to 2011 and was released last week. That ranking was one of the worst among the 14 universities with which GW competes.

Provost Steven Lerman said the number of visible faculty is small but growing, and that he would like to see more faculty in the position of a “trusted expert.” The way to do that is to make faculty’s research more visible, he said.

“We’re not trying to sell it, we’re just trying to make sure that people understand how significant GW’s activities are in so many important research areas,” Lerman said.

Spreading those research achievements beyond GW’s campus is also a major goal of the University-wide strategic plan, approved in May. The decade-long blueprint for research and academics instructs researchers to walk out of academia’s ivory tower.

“Much of the research done in higher education is theoretical and reaches a targeted audience, often through publication in scholarly journals,” the strategic plan reads. “As a result, its effect on policymakers and the general public is limited.”

The ranking is a newer way for outside observers to measure research prominence. At GW, the provost and department chairs typically scrutinize how many grants researchers pull in and whether they are published in top-notch publications.

The study, which ranked Rice University first, compiled the number of times professors in each social science department at each university were cited in news stories and each university’s research funding.

GW broke into the top 100 colleges for research in 2012, and has increased its spending since then, seeing a 7.2 percent increase in total expenditures last year – steady steps in University President Steven Knapp’s race to make GW a top research university.

Lara Brown, director of the graduate program for political management, often discusses political scandals and presidential candidates with reporters. She said professors have an obligation to inform the public of the research they do.

“I feel like it’s part of our duty to really give back to the university and the society to help people understand what they may not have been able to dive into,” she said.

Brown said one of the difficulties for professors who are sources for the media is the fast-paced news cycle.

“If you’re in a class, your phone’s off, you’re not getting emails, you might miss the three-hour window that they need a response. The hardest issue is just an access issue,” Brown said.

And some faculty said professors sometimes see giving interviews as a distraction.

English department chair Robert McRuer said faculty in his department are often sought out because of their prominent knowledge of specific topics, such as the meanings of popular music or race in contemporary society, but that faculty should not focus too much on having a media presence.

“I’m certainly glad that that’s happening, though I certainly don’t want my faculty to feel obliged to be out there talking to the media rather than doing their scholarship,” he said.

Schaffner said a stronger presence in the media would benefit the University as a whole, but that faculty should not be forced to speak to the media.

“I know that we each play our roles, and so from that standpoint I don’t think I would necessarily want to pressure my colleagues who wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it to do it,” Schaffner said.

-Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report

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