Ethics Forum

University of Edinburgh

Impact and engagement: Should academics be activists?

Academics have a wealth of knowledge and expertise on contemporary social issues, and association with an academic institution confers reputational benefit. However, is it appropriate for academics to take politicised stands as activists? Could it be morally required for academics in some fields to be activists? Does engaging in activism mean taking risks with your academic career?

Have your say in the comments section.



Academics Against the Arms Fair (

Debate continues

Campaigns such as Academics Stand Against Poverty, Academics Against the Arms Fair, and Academics Against Mass Surveillance are just a handful of the many examples of academics taking action on pressing moral and political issues.

As it happened

On Friday February 5th, 2016 we held a debate questioning whether academics should engage in activism. The debate was chaired by Dr Mihaela Mihai (Senior Research Fellow in Political Theory, University of Edinburgh).

Speakers disagreed over how we should understand the term ‘activism’, and also more fundamentally about the proper role of academics in the public sphere. Examples of academic research projects that engage with communities and/or pertain to pressing moral and political questions in public sphere were considered. Further, the role of the academic both as researcher and as teacher was highlighted, questioning whether activism is compatible with impartial teaching, and whether it might be necessary for socially responsible teaching.

Prof Lesley McAra (Chair of Penology, Assistant Pricipal Community Relations, University of Edinburgh) answered the title question in the affirmative: yes, academics should be activists. She argued that it is only through activism that we can responsibly use our University’s resources for the public good. Further, she identified ‘making a positive contribution to society’ as a core purpose of academia and academics. She offered three models of activism, based on her research and administrative roles at the University:

  1. Using research findings to influence public policy
    Prof McAra cited her work campaigning for justice for young people in conflict with the law. Here she pointed to the role of academic research in campaigning for penal reform, and its contribution to socially beneficial outcomes such as dramatic reductions in the number of young people sent to prison.
  2. Co-producing research with marginalised communities
    Here she emphasised a research process which itself gives voice to people facing deep social exclusion, citing her role in a project with a local marginalised community.
  3. Mobilising University resources to support whole-university engagement
    Here the idea is that University engagement is not limited to individual projects, but rather part of a university-wide initiative to tackle social problems such as poverty and exclusion in Edinburgh.

Dr Mark de Vries (Lecturer in Materials Chemistry, University of Edinburgh) agreed that academics should be activists. He pointed to emerging scientific consensus about climate change and planetary boundaries, and the gap between these physical realities and existing public policy. He voiced the need for scientists and other academics who are most familiar with this body of work to contribute to public policy addressing climate change.

Dr de Vries also reflected on what it means to be a responsible academic, and that it may mean we have a duty of care to use the resources society endows to us responsibly and for the public good. Prevailing academic culture often incentivises proliferation of its practices indefinitely (for example building new resource-intensive research facilities, or funding international travel for conferences) when it is not always clear that this would be the most socially responsible use of society’s resources. However, advocating for change need not be considered activism, but rather responsible professional practice.

Dr David Levy (Teaching Fellow in Philosophy, University of Edinburgh) disagreed, and argued that academics should not be activists. He began with a narrower definition of activism than preceding speakers, focusing on direct action that produces disruption such as demonstrations, civil disobedience, and minor law-breaking. He argued first that academics have no more reason to engage in activism than anyone else, because academics are not in a position of moral expertise. While academic research and knowledge can be used to support goals that have already been decided in the public sphere, academics are no better positioned than anyone else to decide what goals a society should have.

Further, there are reasons for academics not to be activists. Engaging openly in activism undermines an academic’s role as teacher, and politicises the classroom in a way that can be intimidating or stifling of opposing viewpoints. We also have good reason to doubt the moral good sense of academics, based on a track record of poor behaviour and a failure to protect even the goods of higher education itself from a rhetoric of monetisation. He contends that this does not preclude academics from any of the other options for public engagement open to other citizens, but does advise against pursuing actions that are properly classed as activism.



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This entry was posted on December 18, 2015 by .
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