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What does the case of Jeffery Sachs tell us about the accelerated academy?

The Idealist by Nina Monk, cited by Daniel Drezner in the Ideas Industry, presents a vivid account of the frantic pace at which the economist Jeffery Sachs has tended to work. This intensified work, fitting as much action as possible into each day, will appear to his detractors as a desperate lust for influence. His fans might accept his protestation that “If you haven’t noticed, people are dying – it’s an emergency” as he told Monk. But what each would be responding to is the quantity of his activity:

Day after day, without pausing for air, it seemed, Sachs was making one speech after another, as many as three in one day. At the same time he lobbied heads of state, testified before Congress, held press conferences, attended symposiums, advised government officials and legislators, participated in panel discussions, gave interviews, published papers in academic journals, wrote opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, and sought out anyone, anyone at all, who might help him spread the word. The only time he seemed to slow down was when he was sleeping, never more than four or five hours a night.

For anyone interested in Sachs, this is a fascinating book looking at his politics throughout his career, speculating about how his early failures as the architect of neoliberal shock therapy might have motivated his later turn to developmental economics. What interests me here however is what his life says about the possibilities of academic labour. He was tenured at the age of 28, published hundreds of journal articles and has been cited 118,231 times. He has published 9 books, a number of which were New York Times best sellers. He has raised tens of millions of dollars of research funding, as well as hundreds of millions in funding for projects based on his research. He writes endless op-eds in high profile publications and has 257,00 Twitter followers.

He is the limit condition for what Liz Morrish calls The Trump Academic, anchoring the horizon of possibilities an upwardly mobile aspiring thought leader (or what Linsey McGoey calls a TED Head) confronts at the start of their academic career. The co-ordinates of what Drezner calls the marketplace of ideas and the possibilities for academics to participate are expressed in the trajectory of Sachs, as well as the trail he has left behind him. What sort of scaffolding is necessary to enable this pace of activity? How much of the funding he receives goes on keeping the Sachs show on the road? When does he have time to think? He is the counter-point to the familiar stress of those running through the academic year in order to carve out time to think over the summer without interruption.

I confess a prurient fascination with the working routines of people like Sachs because they seem to repudiate the notion that thought requires withdrawal from the world, even if we can make the argument that the single-minded devotion of Sachs to his cause at any moment suggests there is at least a certain kind of thought he rarely engages in. But if he is the apotheosis of a worldly scholarship, always on the move and always seeking ways to implement his ideas, it surely cautions us against an uncritical embrace of such an orientation towards the scholarly vocation.

Categories: Digital Universities Thinking

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Mark

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