The LSA National Center for Institutional Diversity hosted a panel on Thursday morning. The panel, titled “Navigating a Highly Politicized Landscape: The Role of Scholars in Policy,” featured researchers discussing communication tactics for presenting findings to Congress to influence legislative change.
Approximately 30 people gathered in the Vandenberg Room of the Michigan League to attend the discussion. NCID Director Tabbye Chavous, professor of education and psychology, moderated the event, directing panelists to discuss their particular area of expertise as well as how it relates to the changing political environment.
Michigan alum Laura Perna, the executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, researches college accessibility for underprivileged groups. Perna reflected on the changes she has observed since writing her dissertation as a doctoral student in 1997 on the role of financial aid in the college selection process.
“I don’t know what I was thinking about the future when I was writing my dissertation, but I know that I was not imagining that the problems around college access and college affordability would be much greater now than when I completed my dissertation,” Perna said. “Borrowing is so now ingrained in our system … education is more important now than ever before, but there are many more barriers now than there were before.”
Social Work professor William Elliott, as well as the director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science, conducts research in college savings accounts and wealth inequality. Elliot explained how making college affordable has only recently become part of political discourse.
“Ten years ago, if we look at the political landscape, there wasn’t really much of a conversation about something like free college,” Elliott said. “You couldn’t really talk about that in a public space, where now it’s common for us to have that conversation all of a sudden … there’s now this grassroot(s) movement where people are willing to discuss openly about asset inequality, wealth inequality, income inequality, and these are real issues.”
Chavous redirected the panel to discuss the line between research and advocacy, noting how scholars often dismiss researchers who demonstrate bias or advocate for a particular policy. Perna explained how a researcher’s focus inherently stems from their own motivations.
“Every research project is a political decision,” Perna said. “We have choice about the things we study, we have choice about the things we choose to understand better. That reflects a political choice. I choose to understand how to improve college access and success because I think that’s the most important issue.”
In an interview with The Daily after the event, LSA sophomore Josiah Walker said Perna’s comment raised questions of researchers’ objectivity.
“(Perna’s point) makes me wonder how policy researchers are supposed to stay objectively neutral when the topics they’re researching are often controversial,” Walker said.
Elliott discussed how scholars often push for legislation they know will pass rather than legislation their research suggests.
“When I go to up to D.C. to talk to different people, meet with legislators … we always approach things from the standpoint of ‘What can we get passed?’” Elliott said. “That is often the wrong mentality … it should really about ‘How do we create programs that can make a difference?’ If we start off from that standpoint of what we can get passed, all we ever do is maintain the status quo.”
Kristina Ko, the assistant vice president for Federal Relations for Research, serves as an intermediary between University staff and the federal government. She suggested researchers who wish to share their research with legislators should work with the Office of Government Relations.
Ko also offered suggestions regarding how to go about communicating one’s research to legislators who might be uninformed about the subject.
“Our faculty are most successful engaging with policymakers when the time is right,” Ko said. “When it’s relevant to a bill that’s being debated in Congress, and so it’s being able to take your research at that given time and identify a gap or contribute to the conversation.”
Before approaching a policymaker, Ko told researchers to ensure their communication to legislators is clear and comprehensible.
“Most (Capitol) Hill staffers are not experts in the field that you may be an expert in,” Ko said. “I would say one of the really great ways to communicate a message well is communicate to someone outside of your field or maybe someone who’s not in academia. Try to talk to them about the research that you’re doing and get feedback from them. Do they understand what you’re talking about?”
Elliott discussed how his background influences his research and ability to relay his work to legislators, who can use the information to influence their policy.
“I cannot separate out my identities,” Elliott said. “One is being someone who, in high school, grew up during different periods of time in poverty, which certainly defines what I study, how I think. Then there is the fact that I am a Black biracial person … you’re trying to have someone see you as an academic … as a minority, sometimes it requires a lot more proof than it will for others, so that can delay your ability to access the spaces you need to get your work out.”