All posts by Jon F. Wilkins

Thanks to All for a Fantastic Unconference

On Saturday, we held the first in a series of unconferences on The Future of Careers in Scholarship at The Democracy Center in Cambrdige, MA. It was a beautiful day, we had a great turnout, and the event was a fantastic success. In the coming days, we will be assembling a summary of the various discussions that took place in order to continue that conversation and expand it to an even broader community. So, keep an eye on this space for updates about this event and future events — maybe in your area!

In the meantime, we wanted to thank the various people who contributed to making the unconference a success.

First, and most importantly, we want to thank the participants. The success of an event in an unconference format depends on the energy and good-faith efforts of the attendees, who set the agenda and generate the content. Everyone who came prepared to both talk and listen, and the results were fantastic.

Second, we want to thank the three seed speakers, who started us off by throwing some ideas out to the larger group: Sonia Hall, Jessica Ehinger, and Raquell Holmes. All three were interesting, and, just as importantly, fun.

Third, we want to thank the Democracy Center for use of a great space in a perfect location.

Finally, we want to thank the sponsors, whose support allowed us to keep the event affordable:

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation ( a leader in the promotion and understanding of entrepreneurship. They are currently seeking a Research and Policy Director to lead an interdisciplinary research program focused on understanding the conditions that best support entrepreneurs and the policies that can foster those conditions. For more information, visit

The Society of Professional Consultants ( is an organization that helps individuals establish themselves as independent consultants and helps established consultants to maintain successful careers. They are also offering a free 60-day trial membership to attendees of the unconference.

Ronin Institute Research Scholars Gordon Webster and Alex Lancaster are Partners at the consulting firm Amber Biology (, working at the intersection of biology and computer science. Their new book is Python for the Life Sciences.

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Anne Thessen is the principal of The Data Detektiv (, which specializes in custom data analysis and inference in the biological and geophysical domains.

Research Scholar and Board Member Steven Orzack is the founder of the Fresh Pond Research Institute (, which served as one of the inspirational models for the Ronin Institute.

Opportunity: Entrepreneurship Research and Policy Director

Here’s an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary folks and big thinkers. The Kauffman Foundation is looking to hire a Research and Policy Director to head up a program of academic research on entrepreneurship. As I understand it, this person would assemble and oversee an in-house group of maybe a dozen researchers, and coordinate with a larger network of external researchers. The goal is to better understand what sorts of policies would best encourage and support entrepreneurship.

The exciting part is that they’re looking to do something very different with this position. There is an existing academic community that studies entrepreneurship, but they are really looking for someone who will come at this from a different perspective. In particular, they want to be able to draw on insights from fields in the social sciences like sociology and psychology, as well as natural science areas like ecology and evolution. So, maybe someone in one of those areas, and with an interest in building a truly interdisciplinary community.

Here’s the official description:

Reporting to the Vice President of Entrepreneurship, the Research & Policy Director will lead the design and implementation of the Foundation’s research and policy strategy. The Director partners with the Vice President of Entrepreneurship to position the Foundation as the country’s central resource and authority on entrepreneurship research and policy.

The Director is a strategic and visionary leader; anticipating trends, and identifying patterns in data and evidence to shape the Foundation’s entrepreneurship strategy. This person is also charged with identifying knowledge gaps that must be closed in order to advance entrepreneurship. It’s important that the Director places special emphasis on actionable and practical research – research that can inform the Foundation’s programmatic strategy in entrepreneurship.

You can also check out the position announcement page here, or download a PDF document with a more detailed description and instructions on how to apply:  director_research_and_policy_position_description_august_2016

I should note that we are promoting this position in part as a thank you to the Kauffman Foundation for sponsoring our upcoming unconference on The Future of Careers in Scholarship. The event will be held on Saturday, November 5 in Cambridge, MA. Additional information is available at the eventbrite registration page:

Henry Heller on IP-Based Capitalism at Universities

There’s a short piece in the Times Higher Ed by Henry Heller in which he outlines the transformation over the course of the second half of the twentieth century of American universities from publicly supported institutions working for the good of society as a whole to standard neoliberal corporations.

The upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s may be seen in retrospect as an extension of the success of the 1950s, as university enrolments and funding continued to expand, and as the social and political role of universities assumed new importance. Universities became important sites of conflict over foreign policy, racism, gender equality and democracy, both within and beyond the campus. A new ideological cosmopolitanism emerged on campus as a result of the emergence of the first serious Marxist scholarship in the US, especially through the renewal of a historical perspective in anthropology, sociology, literature and history proper. Feminists opened up new opportunities for women in academe and began to create new theory around the question of gender. Most importantly, the very purpose of academic knowledge and research was questioned, especially in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.


But from the 1980s onwards, so-called academic capitalism took hold, and universities increasingly redefined their mission to be serving private business and they themselves became, as far as possible, profit-oriented in operation and objectives. And thus was born the so-called neoliberal university, marked by the decline of the humanities and social sciences, cuts in public financing, enfeeblement of faculty and student roles in governance, increases in tuition fees, reductions in tenured faculty and increasing use of adjunct professors. Capping off these changes are the growth of for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, and the growth of mainly business-backed massive open online courses, which augur a decline in the need for permanent faculty and investments in fixed capital.

The article coincides with the publication of his new book, The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016, which looks like a must read for anyone who cares about the history, and the future, of academia.

Unconference Sponsorships Available

The first Ronin Institute Unconference, on the Future of Careers in Scholarship, is coming up soon. It is being held on Saturday, November 5, in Cambridge, MA.

Sponsorships are now available for this unconference. If your organization is interested in sponsoring this event, you can find more information at, or you can contact us at


Access Denied: Access to Scientific Literature

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Emily Monosson has written a new post (cross-posted as AAAS’s Sci-on-the-Fly) where she discusses the challenges of accessing paywalled literature when you’re working outside the traditional academic system. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, as we enter the Golden Age of information and technology – somewhere, somehow, this scientific information increasingly became locked away behind paywalls. Creating a system of scientific Haves and Have-nots, as university libraries become gateways open to those with the right netIDs. As increasing numbers of us wander from the academy, whether working for non-profits, as high-school teachers, writers or god-damn independents – we risk losing access to this trove of essential data. And the larger scientific community, I think, risks losing us along with all the time, and money and knowledge it took to train us.

Check it out!

First Ronin Institute Unconference

The Ronin Institute is organizing its first “unconference” on Saturday, November 5, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The theme will be “The Future of Careers in Scholarship“, and the event will be held from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm at The Democracy center, located in Harvard Square, at 45 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA. I hope you’ll join us!

For additional details and registration information, visit the event page on Eventbrite:

You can also keep up with this and future events at the events page:

Second Round of Conference Scholarships Awarded

Following the success of our first round of conference support funding, the board authorized that allocation of additional funding to support travel to academic conferences, as well as research-related travel. So, in addition to our first round of awardees, we offer our congratulations to Michael Clarage, Michelle Coughlin, Ruth Duerr, Vicenta Salvador, and Eleanor Wynn.

Smallbridge HallMichelle Coughlin’s award helped to support her trip to the UK to do research for the her next book, The First First Ladies, about the wives of America’s colonial governors. She sent along a number of gorgeous photos of the homes related to Penelope Pelham Winslow, who was married to Plymouth Colony Governor Josiah Winslow. It is great to be able to see the impact of the conference scholarship program.

Our next round of funding is scheduled for January 2017. In the meantime, we are raising funds to continue — and expand — this program. The members of the board have pledged to contribute an additional matching $1000 if we are able to raise $3000 for this program by the end of 2016. So, please consider helping us by making a contribution. You can donate online: select “Conference Scholarships” to direct your donation specifically to this program. To find out more, check out our donation page.

Marc Edwards (Flint Water Dude) and the Lie of Tenure

Marc Edwards, civil-engineering professor at Virginia Tech and driving force behind the research that revealed the high lead levels in the water system in Flint, Michigan, gave a great interview to the Chronicle of Higher Education. He has a number of fantastic, and terrifying, things to say about the culture of academic science.

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

But, of course, it’s not just young faculty (although it is definitely worse for them). This is directly related to the lie that we always repeat about tenure. The premise of tenure, of course, is that once you’ve proven yourself, you get job security, which provides intellectual freedom. Once you have tenure, you’re supposed to be able to pursue your research, even if it is controversial or unpopular. And in certain fields that may be more or less true.

But in the sciences, it’s definitely less, partly due to a different treadmill. You need money to do science, and you need scientific results to get money. It is an open secret that most funded NIH proposals are for work that has largely already been done. The researchers then use the money to do the research that will go into the next proposal. But if you have a gap in funding, it is harder to get those results. An extended gap means that your lab shrinks, you may have to take on additional teaching, and you may even lose lab space — putting you in a hole that’s hard to get out of. Which is to say, securing research funding is like being in a relationship with Lindsey Buckingham: if you don’t fund me now, you will never fund me again.

That dynamic contributes to the passive acceptance of corruption by scientists, mainly by making them risk averse. In my experience, most academics want to do the right thing. It’s just that doing the right thing often comes at a cost that few are willing to pay. And, viewed from a certain perspective, they may be right.

When you’re a grad student, you’re told that tenure is the goal, that once you get it, you’re set. What you’re not told is that there are elaborate systems of carrots and sticks all the way up the hierarchy. Critics of the Platonic ideal of tenure will tell you that these incentives are necessary to deal with the accumulation of “dead wood”. And everyone has stories of the worthless professor who got tenure and then quit working altogether. Defenses of the erosion of tenure tend to sound a lot like defenses of mass surveillance: if you keep doing good work, you’ve got nothing to worry about!

But one of the lessons of the Flint water crisis is this: any system of rewards and punishments can be captured and put to work towards corrupt ends. You build a system to punish people for not working hard enough, and someone will figure out how to use that system to make people fearful enough of punishment that they are unwilling to question or criticize authority.

Yes, encouraging people to fight for more and more funding does make them work harder, but if none of them are willing to ask the important questions, what’s the point?