06/04/2012 04:46 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Will The Next Joe Murphy Please Stand Up

In 1987, when Russell Jacoby published The Last Intellectuals, there was a collective recognition that for better or worse intellectuals and universities became increasingly entwined during the 20th century. Nowhere was this more profound than with the group of writers who were the New York intellectuals and the City University of New York, CUNY. Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Dwight MacDonald, (and if you stretch it a little) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Michael Harrington all joined CUNY as faculty, making significant contributions to the institution and the education of its students (me being one).

Jacoby and others have bemoaned the compromises such institutional affiliations entailed for the intellectuals in question. Some, like Jacoby, worried aloud about how diminished public intellectuals had become, their ability to earn a living solely by writing had seemingly come to an end along with their independence. Others worried (this was, after all, during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s) about the left-wing march of intellectuals into the professoriate. Either way the mantra went: they retreated into the universities and our democracy was poorer because of it.

We seemed in the 1990s to be in a collective panic about the fate of intellectuals in America. We rejected the French model of the intellectual as hero and were living out Richard Hofstadter's anti-intellectual nightmare. In the late 1990s, Florida Atlantic University attracted loads of attention for a Ph.D program, whose central aim was to train public intellectuals. Many Ph.D programs instituted public humanities components, following the lead of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. And, we witnessed the (re)birth of civic engagement in higher education. Today we celebrate civically engaged learning and have learned to teach and nurture it. But, we still have a public intellectual problem.

I am not here to argue the merits of Jacoby's thesis or that of his conservative detractors -- too much ink has already been spilled on that score. But sitting here, 25 years after Jacoby's publication, I wonder if for all the conversations, have we missed the profound impact the so-called "last intellectuals" had on our university's, and more importantly, on their students. I also wonder why we in higher education failed to fully partner with this creative force, to nurture it beyond this first generation as a successful model rather than treating it as a failed experiment.

There are a small army of new, and smart, literary and political writers, many associated with witty journals (think N+1). Brooklyn seems to be awash in them. (Could there be something in the water?) Even The Baffler has returned from the dead to snark again. But, rather than being timid and occurring inside the university, as Jacoby suggested/worried, these bastions of public intellectualism are happening sans university. Could Fast Company's Anya Kamenetz (DIY U) be right? Do we even need universities anymore? I believe we do!

We seem to be going through a mini-renaissance of public intellectualism. Journalism is one of the most important majors for college students. MFAs sprout mushroom-like across the nation. Small journals, print and on-line, and blogs have returned us in some ways to the golden age (was there such a thing) of public writing. Writers, on the left, such as Christian Parenti, Rick Perlstein, and Doug Henwood, have joined academics such as Corey Robins and the late Tony Judt in spirited public discussions as intellectual equals. And the think tanks and journals of the right are filled with first class minds.

What worries me is that while many of these new public intellectuals have acquired good-sized audiences and have revived independent journalism, their independence is a missed opportunity for universities.

Writing in his memoir, Michael Harrington, told us how Queens College, CUNY, President Joe Murphy hired him, sans Ph.D to teach political science. By bring Harrington to Queens, Murphy exposed thousands of students to Mike's brilliance (myself included), and provided him a platform and security. He became a model for many of an engaged scholar (something we all claim as institutions to want). It seems to me that the real winner in this deal were the Queens College students. Today's universities are missing a huge opportunity to hire some of the smartest and best thinkers, the Harrington's, or if you like, the Kristols of today. These are folks who are interested in big ideas, are gifted writers and thinkers, and who are fully engaged in the world. Many have Ph.Ds. They make do by writing, or staffing magazines and think tanks. They regularly visit campuses to lecture or do book events. But, they are always guests -- not regulars -- at our table. As faculty, they could enliven academic life, encourage a new wave of engaged academics the way the older wave did.

But this generation's new intellectuals find it difficult to get a university perch. What is it that we are afraid of? Are we worried about the attention such hires would get us? That can't be because we cheer when one of our faculty breaks into the ether of the public sphere. Tony Judt was rightfully celebrated as a Public Intellectual, by his home institution NYU. When our faculty are on TV and their books sell we put them on the front page of our websites. But, we worry that outsiders will change us. Home-grown public intellectuals have earned their place in our system first. They had to passed muster on our terms before we recognize them as public scholars. What do we do with those who already are there in public? I am sure many of you can name scholar-professors who are public intellectuals. They have made that border crossing with great effort and often it was a lonely path. But there are some that have made it. So, why can't this be a two-way street?

There are a few dozen writers and intellectuals that should be in a university. They should have a chance to teach because they are experts and have something interesting to say. Many would fit in well within an academic culture -- and would serve on committees and do the important work of a university. Not all of them would teach and run. They could introduce their fellow faculty to other big thinkers, writers and editors. From what I hear, Harrington participated in a regular faculty seminar at Queens College. But the real reason to have them as faculty is for the students. I still remember the awe I felt as a student sitting in Mike Harrington's classes. Sure, the first time I had him I had no idea who he was. But, between then and the next time, I read The Other America, and that changed me. And, I believe it changed Queens College for the better too. If chosen wisely, these intellectuals could improve the academic culture of an institution without corrupting it. Our students need more Joe Murphys, educational leaders with the guts to think boldly outside of the box.

Richard A. Greenwald, professor of history and sociology, is Dean of St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, NY. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming book Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (New Press).