Academic Governance: A Model

by Daniel Briskin

An unfortunately high proportion of our elected officials are highly opinionated, but irrational people who let their guts drive their politics; many more of them are voters. With the same concerns in mind as the architects of the Electoral College, I don’t want this type of person making decisions for me.

We have had capable people in government, such as former Secretary of Energy and physics Nobel Laureate, Steven Chu. We also have a former Princeton economics professor and department chair Ben Bernanke as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor of healthcare management and of medical ethics and health policy served as Special Advisor for health policy to the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. These are the types of people who I want making decisions at the highest level. Their opinions may differ from mine, and are certainly not in line with all other Americans’, but I am confident in these people’s ability to make decisions based on facts.

So, how do I get a government wherein the leaders have a higher probability of leading based on fact rather than instinct? For the sake of simplicity, I will start with all 18+ American citizens and apply a series of filters to acquire highly capable potential governmental officers.

I would like a candidate who is able to create goals and attain them. A Fortune 500 CEO shows vast leadership in the ability to guide such a firm, but I am weary of the selfishness of CEOs (as exhibited by the US financial sector). Thus, I want to select against pure and unbridled selfishness while opting for somewhat civic-minded individuals. I do, however, want someone who is good at getting what they want through politicking and networking, a valuable skillset to have for a potential politician. Qualities to actively select for would come from people who work toward somehow ameliorating the world, such as through the acquisition and subsequent dissemination of knowledge to somehow care for others.

Thus, who is like a CEO or high-level executive, but shows some outward symptom of compassion for humanity? University professors have at least some mild power over their underlings and they also work to advance the scope of human knowledge and understanding. Additionally, to attain the position of professors, they have risen through their institutes’ ranks and therefore many have some skill in navigating bureaucracy. So if professors were to be  politicians, qualifies them for high-level, government positions?

Throughout the United States there are more than one thousand four-year degree-awarding institutions, each with numerous professors, and some professors must have more acclaim and influence both at their universities and in their fields. The whole point of this proposed system is to have the most expert, capable hands in control, but also to make a simple system. Thus, to parse down the number of eligible professors, first choose only high-ranking universities. A way to do this, while still maintaining regional and proportional representation for US citizens, would be that each state selects a number of institutions (proportional to the state’s population) to represent the state at the national level. These institutions could be selected based on pre-existing academic evaluation systems, or a new set of criteria could be specially created. These criteria assume that the quality of a professor correlates directly with the rank of their institution, and this is an assumption I am willing to make. Whereas the above paragraph is surely biased and more exclusive than inclusive, it quickly creates a small pool of eligible candidates who are increasingly likely to be experts in their respective fields.

The current structure of the US government, with different organizations for agriculture, the environment, science, space, defense, etc. could remain largely intact. Different university departments fit nicely into the roles of government: law professors could serve in the courts; political science professors could serve in international relations; scientists could head up different scientific agencies; economists could head the Federal Reserve and Treasury; and so on. Importantly, all departments would have representatives in a legislative body so that each specialty could create laws regarding their field.

This results in a system with proportional localized representation where only the highest-achieving professionals, who on some level have helped to advance humanity, can be in control.

I concede instantly that this proposed government is far from perfect. What about representation of the people? Perhaps a lower legislative body could be created that could introduce bills to be ultimately voted on by the upper legislature consisting of academics. Who will be in charge of the government as a whole? All of the eligible members of government could vote on a former university president to take the lead, for the president would have experience in a leadership role acting as a liaison between a university and the public (or between government/citizens and foreign entities).

My hope would be that by creating a field of academics—those who regularly read and analyze data in their field—they could scientifically approach the world’s problems and create and implement novel ideas.

I realize that my idea is not completely novel. Plato proposed his philosopher king thousands of years ago; my ideas outlined above are simply a modern interpretation on the idea of a ruling intelligentsia.

Overall, am I advocating a switch to this proposed form of government? No. For all its flaws, I think a functionally democratic system is the only feasible form of government in free, highly developed nations. I am merely longing for a government in which those in charge would be more effective at their jobs, solve pressing issues, and create progress. Perhaps the American electorate will realize that facts are more important than blind ideals. Perhaps government officials will appoint more high-level advisors from academia. Hard as it is for them to admit, politicians do not know everything; they should embrace the ideals of economic specialization and let experts from each field advise and guide in the never-ending process of political and cultural evolution.

July/August 2013