This essay is meant to prompt professional self-reflection for academics, particularly legal academics, on the appropriate relationship between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of power.
Academic institutions, in theory, should be among the most robust sites in which dissent against conventional or widely-shared views of policy and law ought to find easy expression. That has long been part of the justification for the general principle of institutional academic freedom, as well as for specific organizational features of the academy, such as tenure.
Yet the legal academy risks being more compromised, and increasingly so, in its ability to play this role than is often recognized. The reason is the paradox of the relationship of legal academics to actual political power. Legal academics are not just independent scholars of public policy, law, legal or political institutions. They are also often direct participants in the systems of public and private power they study. Unlike academics in most other disciplines (except, perhaps, economics), legal academics have greater opportunity for effective influence over policy, law, and politics. The various forms of practical engagement which legal scholars undertake -- consulting, litigating, testifying to Congress or courts, service in government -- have significant benefits, both in the classroom and in scholarship. But they also come with significant risks, including risk to the ability to play an essential role that justifies academic institutions, the role of being able to stand apart from existing constellations of power or interest or conventional wisdom on issues of moment.
This essay identifies the various ways in which the paradoxical position of the legal academic and the temptations of access to political and legal power threaten the ability of the legal academy to be a source of dissent. The essay then explores how legal academics ought to think about the benefits and risks of the unique position of academics closely connected to the institutions and actors who wield actual political and legal power. I emphasize that the foundation for considering the role of legal academics as potentially important sources of dissent must be a belief in the existence and importance to collective decision making of expert knowledge about the kinds of questions legal academics teach, research, and write about. This premise needs emphasis because many forces press against it. American democracy since the Jacksonian era has always contained a strong strand of anti-elitism capable of being mobilized by political actors against various claims to specialized knowledge and expertise.
In my view, Intellectual independence, and the capacity to dissent from various orthodoxies and structures of power is more difficult to attain and maintain than academics often recognize. That is so even though academics are institutionally and structurally situated to be in most able to resist the political or ideological conventions of the moment. As one example, I discuss the political scientist Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s distortion of history in his public attempt to legitimate President Truman’s unilateral decision, without congressional authorization, to commit massive military force to defend South Korea against North Korea’s attack in the 1950s. The unauthorized Korean War was a turning point in American political practice regarding unilateral presidential commitments of military force. Twenty years later, during the Vietnam War, Schlesinger publicly recanted and acknowledged that he had distorted the history to support Truman’s war.
This necessarily brief essay is meant mainly to raise and provoke further discussion of these issues, rather than to offer a comprehensive analysis. It is not offered as a moralistic exercise, and I have engaged in many of the practical activities I describe. But power -- political, financial, and other -- is seductive, and the tensions between it and intellectual independence are central to the modern legal academy and warrant fuller discussion.