Why is Planning Academia Losing Relevance in Society?

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Cities have increasingly become under spotlight, they are centre stage of critical issues such as climate change, economic growth and pandemics across the world. Developing countries are witnessing rapid urbanisation—from Africa to Asia. In this spotlight, universities are producing more graduates in planning and urban studies than ever before; academics are publishing more research on planning and urbanization than ever before. Regardless of this entire trend, planning academia is increasingly losing relevance in the society; it is losing value at the most crucial moment when it is needed to help address challenges of urbanisation in a more complex and dynamic world. Planning professionals have been regarding this discrepancy the “theory-practice gap.” Many factors can be attributed to why planning academia is losing relevance. In this essay, I discuss some of the drivers pushing planning academia off the cliff. I talk about the possibility of turning around the role of planning academia and terminal reasons why that can be a difficult reform process.

The Rational Allocative Role of Planning

When planning became a profession under the local government in the early 20th century, it was under the ideals of European enlightenment. Its role was to reconcile the interests of various classes that made up the city, what came to be regarded as “public interest.” The conflicts between the industrialists and the working class of the city such as living conditions which led to social protests were to be reconciled through planning, improving harmonious coexistence of various classes within a city. This enlightenment origin of planning was dominant across the world where Europe had influence through colonialism and trade. In America, planning’s origins were shaped by modernism, by ideals of utopia realised under the “city beautiful movement.” In all this however, the purpose of planning was to create peaceful co-existence of various classes in cities through better liveability of cities. As planning academia is evolving, the question now is if planning should remain as a local government practice, allocating resources in cities authoritatively through peaceful reform or if it should return to pre-profession era of voluntary practice, social activism and calls for revolution against capital. Such question is hardly addressed.

Ideological Monoculture and Epistemic Bubbles

Planning academia is now too characterised by ideological monoculture to be a candid analyser of cities and society. In this monoculture, one view is predominant and is fully embraced against other views. Because of the monoculture, every urbanisation issue is being analysed in specific ideological lenses. The idea of reconciling and rationalising systems of organising society that of the capital and the social has disappeared. In most planning schools across the world, liberal faculty outnumbers conservative faculty by at least five to one. This has made many planning schools to be dominated by a homogenous faculty; a left-leaning faculty that subscribes predominantly to Marxist ideology of socialist cities.

Under the prevailing ideological monoculture, conservative thought is not welcomed in planning schools. However, its disappearance is not necessarily a conspiracy by liberal faculty to purge conservative academics; it has been more of ‘implicit biases’ or what is termed “progressive privilege.” The conservative academics that still exist in planning schools are the ones accomplished enough to generate value for the schools, perhaps as magnets for funding regardless of the fact that they are now more of a curiosity. The monoculture is even strongest in top planning schools and less so in schools ranked on the lower tier of the spectrum.

The ideological monoculture is also reproduced through the recruitment process. Recruitment is a rigorous gatekeeping process in planning schools; scholars have to pass the conformity test. Admission to graduate schools, finding a mentor, establishing peer relationships, coming up with a dissertation committee, applying for postdoctoral fellowships, pursuing research funding, seeking tenure. In all these stages, the academia assesses the scholars’ inclination to pursue “problematic” hypotheses or what is regarded “irrelevant” questions. The process weeds out scholars with an inclination to pursue lines of inquiry that are critical of the prevailing ideology. If a scholar joins a planning faculty while apolitical in ideological inclination, they have to absorb the language, rhythms and rules of the prevailing ideology as a way of practical accommodation, it enables them to get along with peers, get their papers accepted and get promotions. In their growth, right-leaning academics eventually steer away from pursuing eyebrow-raising lines of inquiry as a way of conforming.

The mainstreaming of leftist ideas particularly of Marxism as a single ideology in planning schools has created fatal problems for planning academia. Now, the single ideology determines who gets hired in planning schools, what gets researched, what is taught. Research by planning faculty has to be within confines of the dominant ideology, same applies to what they teach planning students. The ideological monoculture defeats the whole purpose of academic freedom whose existence is now questionable anyhow. A vibrant academic life allows scholars the freedom to explore ideas, pursue research, and share findings in search for truth. Such vibrancy requires competition of ideas and evidence—diversity of thought—a vibrant marketplace for ideas. When an ideology determines what should be researched and the acceptable answers to the research questions, it is a trampling on academic freedom. It seems diversity of thought is shunned upon in planning schools. The only diversity that is encouraged is that of race, gender and, perhaps of economic class. The problem with ideological monoculture in planning schools, be it right-wing or left-wing is that it damages society at any chance it get, it is a form of fascism.

Ideological monoculture bubbles academics from realities of the world, they only view the world in certain ideological lenses, making them lose analytical candidness. For example, in African cities, one of the biggest challenge,—if not the biggest—is the lack of economic growth to support the growing urban population, poor industrialisation to create employment for the migrating population. Nevertheless, research on issues of industrialisation is very minimal in planning academia. Where it exists, it is framed in specific ideological cocoons to be of any use to policymakers. In fact, issues of industrialisation might be shunned upon as they conflict with the dominant ideology of Marxism. Yet the struggling urban population is not in cities to overthrow capitalism as Marxist ideology seeks, it is there to earn a livelihood by any means possible without any ideological inclinations. Eventually, industrialisation issues are left to urban economists who still struggle to put the issues into spatial terms without the help of planning academics.

The ideological monoculture is also creating confirmation bias in planning academic research and publishing. This confirmation bias is the reason it is easy to publish a manuscript on politically desirable issues, to publish otherwise is much difficult because of the ideologically-driven gatekeeping; some planning journals are now ideologically thematic in their focus. It is hard to expect academic rigour in an ideologically charged research and publishing environment. The monoculture is creating epistemic bubbles and echo chambers where academics only converse with academics of similar thinking and engage ideas agreeable to theirs. For example, Right to the City is a very fashionable idea of Marxist thought in planning right now, almost every planning academic is engaging it. Nonetheless, it is very rare to find a publication that is critical of such an idea. If you are to ask a planning graduate or even a seasoned planning academic to critique the concept of the right to the city or socialism it may be difficult to get a balanced critique. Regardless of this bias, there is no human system of organising society be it capitalism, communism or socialism that is without inadequacies. This is why every political philosophy, ideology or theory should be subject to scrutiny of intellectual critique. Such a quest is difficult to achieve while under ideological monoculture. The monoculture is portraying planning schools as political institutions with a political mandate to transform cities towards the social rather than academic institutions determined to pursue academicrigour in search of truth.

As diversity of thought is disappearing in planning schools, the rise of academic moralism/political correctness is denigrating academic rigour and stifling debate that is required to solve the most pressing urbanisation challenges. There are certain research questions that should pursued, framed in certain ideological lenses and there are certain answers that are expected from planning research. Academics that dare to go outside the walls of academic moralism put their jobs on the line, can be subject to no platforming or even lose funding.

Planning students are expected to conform to the prevailing ideology in the planning schools if they are to succeed. Strategic students usually seek what their professors want and they give it to them. They can hardly establish independent thinking in their training; it is an unhealthy setup particularly for the planning profession and its role in society. When the students graduate, they may struggle to put their education to use in the real world. They come out of planning schools knowing only how to glorify liberal ideas and how to vilify conservative ideas; they are taught the language of revolution against capitalism. In the real society however, planning is a world of harmonious reform, planning graduates are expected to reconcile various systems of organising society— such as capitalism and socialism—as complementaries of their inadequacies to make cities work and for various social classes to co-exist harmoniously, even marginally. It now take re-education to achieve that rationality.

The Ivory Towers of Planning Academia

Planning academics are increasingly confining themselves to academic circles. They are struggling to communicate with the public, in some cases they are not willing to. Their work as academics is confined largely to academic journals that are mostly accessible to their peers who can understand the peer-oriented jargon. Most of these publications are hidden in expensive academic journals behind digital pay walls or expensive book distributions. Regardless of how transformative the ideas shared by academics in journal articles can be, they hardly reach and inform both policymakers and the

public. It becomes difficult for academics to make a difference in society that needs ideas to address urbanisation challenges.
There are many reasons why planning academics rarely engage the public or policymakers regarding their work. There are planning academics who believe that it is not their mandate to write for the public, they believe their mission is intellectual, not “dumbing down” their complex thinking and arguments. Some planning academics lack training on mass communication to master the art of explaining complex concepts to lay audience and policymakers. There is also lack of incentives from universities and governments for planning academics to engage the public or policymakers regarding their findings. Because of these inadequacies, most public discourse on planning and urbanisation is shaped by think tanks whose experts are trained to write for general audience. In some cases, such think tanks will be advancing certain political or commercial agenda which distorts the public discourse on planning.

The confining of planning academics to academic audience robs them of the prospects to be public intellectuals that shape public debate and policy discourse. It has reached a point where taxpayers can question the point of funding planning schools when they are not helping with shaping public debate with critical thinking or help solve the pressing challenges affecting cities. Only a few planning schools exist that incentivise their faculty to write for the popular media, appear on TV or radio as a form of public engagement. So, planning academics only stick to the practice that advances their careers, which is publishing their research for peer consumption in academic journals and academic books. The President of University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel summed up well the detachment of academics from the public:

“We forget the privilege it is to have lifelong security of employment at a spectacular university. And I don’t think we use it for its intended purpose. I think that faculty on average through the generations are becoming a bit careerist and staying inside our comfort zones. [But] If we’re perceived as being an ivory tower and talking to one another and being proud of our discoveries and our awards and our accomplishments and the letters after our name, I think in the long run the enterprise is going to suffer in society’s eyes, and our potential for impact will diminish. The willingness of society to support us will decrease.”

Mark Schlissel, President of University of Michigan

There is an underlying force why planning academics are increasingly confining themselves to academic circles and why universities are not incentivising their faculty to engage the public and policymakers regarding their research. The traditional value of academia has disappeared over the decades and a new form of value replaced it, which compels academics of such practice.

Pure Circulation – A New Form of Academic Value

Since the 1960s, academic use value has been disappearing. Academic research began to lose value, planning academia increasingly detached itself from society, and university degrees also began to lose value increasingly. To compensate for this loss of traditional value, planning academia transformed itself adopting a new form of value, that of pure circulation. Because of this new form of value, planning schools and broadly universities now operate the same way that capitalism does through the stock markets. Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher describes pure circulation of knowledge in his book, Simulacra and Simulation characterising it as like floating capital:

“The value of the university (diplomas, etc.) will proliferate and continue to circulate, a bit like floating capital…they will spiral without referential criteria, completely devalorised in the end, but that is unimportant; their circulation alone is enough to create a social horizon of value, and the ghostly presence of the phantom value will only be greater, even when its reference point (its use value, its exchange value, the academic ‘work force’ that the university recoops) is lost.”

Jean Baudrillard, 1994 Simulacra Simulation, p.155

Akin to stocks on the stock market, the value of research outputs planning academics does not depend on their impact on society or on cities. The research now derives its value virtually from pure circulation within the academic orbit, the citation process. The more citations the publications receive, the more value they gain even when they do not have any impact in real society of urbanisation. The value of the publications is not referent to their impact in real society through shaping policies, solving urbanisation problems or shaping public debate. This is akin to stock markets where market capitalisation of stocks is not a referent value of the company’s value in the real economy of production, it is phantom value.

If we compare planning academia to the ‘virtual capitalism’ of the stock markets, research outputs have become the financial products that are traded on the stock markets (academic journals). Just as the same way financial derivatives have dominated the stock markets, review articles as knowledge products derived from empirical research products now dominate planning research. They are the best way of keeping the momentum that is required of pure circulation. Review articles are cited at least three times more than original research articles, depicting their importance in promoting pure circulation of knowledge. In upholding the citation indices, which is the best way to measure pure circulation, the academic community even has guidelines whose underlying purpose seem to be promotion of pure circulation. This pure circulation of knowledge has pushed planning schools and planning academia to the point of ridicule as they chase phantom value to advance their careers and rankings. For instance, in the stock market of the virtual economy, companies are buying back their own stocks—a practice which lacks economic rationale other than to keep the momentum of pure circulation of capital—such practice also exist in planning academia now. Self-citation, with all the justifications it receives has the same logic as stock buybacks, the underlying force is to keep the momentum of pure circulation of knowledge, an empty inflation of value.

The problem with planning academia being governed by pure circulation of knowledge is that it is detached from real society to impact policies and actions with its knowledge. The research outputs keep circulating in the academic orbit without leaving, where it leaves the academic orbit, it usually lands in the reports of international organisations where academics offer consulting services yet rarely reach the public and policymakers who need such knowledge. While lecturing in California, Jean Baudrillard observed the tragedy of academics being detached from the society:

“As for the intellectual, he has at last found the equivalent of what the teenager gets from his stereo and his Walkman: a spectacular desublimation of thought, his concepts as images on a screen.”

Jean Baudrillard, 1988. America, p. 37

In this isolation and desublimation of thought, academics lose their plot when it comes to pursuing real issues and coming up with real solutions as Baudrillard and Petit later observed: “Everywhere we are trapped in false problems, false alternatives, false issues, in which we lose out come what may,” (Baudrillard & Petit, 1998, p. 64). Just like the Wall Street where probably about 90 percent of people in finance may not know how the US stock market actually work, the same can be said for planning academia. Planning academics already acknowledge that there is too much academic research being published. There are calls for reform to fix the broken publishing system of “publish or perish.” The scholars who are calling for reform to reducing the publishing rate in universities as in planning schools might not be realising that the new primary source of value of academia, that of pure circulation. To challenge the virulence of academic publishing will be to challenge the very logic of academic value. If the pure circulation of academic publications or the virulent awarding of university degrees declines, the value of planning academia will also experience a catastrophic collapse.
While reforming planning academia can be difficult given the underlying forces of pure circulation and ideological monoculture, it is helpful to take a leaf from the architecture schools. Unlike planning academia, which is drowning in practices of social sciences and humanities, architecture is engaging society differently. Architecture schools are also suffering from virulent, awarding of degrees—as every academic institution is doing the lost academic use value—however, they do not participate much in production of knowledge for the sake of promoting pure circulation. The focus of architecture schools has been developing innovative ideas that impact society. It is also for this reason that most ideas that have shaped cities have come from the architecture community rather than from planning, ideas such as mixed use planning. Most government departments and local authorities are opting to hire architects and planning graduates from polytechnic colleges where technical education of planning skills are still valued rather than graduates from university planning schools who indulge predominantly in ideological debates of radicalism. It is a revelation to the denigration of planning education in universities.

A Generation of Societal Engagement

The job of planning academia cannot be to create knowledge obscura while trapped in ivory towers accessible only to the enlightened. Traditionally, the moral and societal duty of planning academics is to advance understanding of human settlements to people who live and shape them, to improve liveability of human settlements and share knowledge. To do this requires the academics to participate in public debate, influence opinion responsibly, and help citizens navigate the complexities of human settlements.

Planning schools need to revisit their social contract, their obligation to give service to society as their core purpose. They need to give value for their public funding. We are witnessing a young generation of planning academics that have an inclination towards engaging society and contributing to solve problems in the real world, however. They are joining academia with expectations to impact society with their knowledge and expertise. In cases where planning academia is not offering public engagement or even discourage it, the young scholars are opting to leave academia altogether to join think tanks, NGOs, governments or other organisations where they can impact the real world with their ideas. These scholars are writing blogs, editorial and working with local communities in cities.
It remains to be seen how planning schools will embrace this new crop of academics and their approach. It remain to be seen if tenure committees in planning schools begin to value public engagement as criteria for promotion and tenure and how it will evaluate public communication.

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