Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Lagos Offers Insights as an Academic in Political Life

October 18, 2011

Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile and current professor-at-large at Brown University, offered insights and anecdotes from his experience as both an academic and a policymaker at the recent “Scholars, Practitioners, and Inter American Affairs” conference at the Institute.

As a scholar, Lagos earned a law degree from the University of Chile in 1960 and received a PhD in economics from Duke University in 1966. He was a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has held various leadership positions at the University of Chile. As a policymaker, Lagos has served at the United Nations as a consultant and an economist; in the 1980s, he led a coalition of Chilean parties opposed to Pinochet; he founded the Party for Democracy (Partido por la Democracia); he served as minister of education and minister of public works before being elected president in 2000.

Lagos set out his keynote address by discussing differences among scholars and practitioners.

Firstly, he said academics and politicians express their views differently.

“A major difference between a scholar and a politician is in the way they talk,” he said. “As a scholar, you are supposed to talk to those like you, to scholars like you.”

“You can use the jargon,” as a scholar, Lagos said. But as a politician, he said, one must be able to express ideas to all people. 

“As a politician, you have to know at what level are you going to talk to be able to be understood by everybody,” he said. “And that, let me tell you, is not taught at any university.”

Lagos went on to say that scholars and politicians are further divided by so-called “time constraints.”

“The scholar has plenty of time,” Lagos said. “The politician, in a democratic system, is like a yogurt: there is an expiration date.”

He later spoke of efforts he made as president of Chile to organize conferences and seminars bringing together scholars and practitioners. He stressed the importance of making informed, educated, and collaborative decisions, but explained that in the end, political decisions are in the hands of the politicians alone.

Lagos’s keynote address was emblematic of the approach of the two-day conference, where academics and policymakers came together to explore the intersections between scholarship and politics in Latin America.

The conference was organized by Richard Snyder, director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies; Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California; and Mariano Bertucci, a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at USC.

A follow-up to an event held earlier this year at USC, the conference included various presentations and discussions, and a second keynote, by Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.

It began with brief introductions from Professors Snyder and Lowenthal, along with Bertucci.

Snyder spoke of the demand for area studies scholarship in an era of globalization, asking attendees: “Why do we need a new way of doing area studies? Why do we need to globalize area studies?”

He went on to answer these questions, telling the audience that “profound cultural, social, and political differences persist, and also emerge anew, both across and also within regions.”

“Globalization therefore creates a dual demand for knowledge that is both broad and deep,” Snyder said. “That is, alert to cross-regional patterns and commonalities, yet also carefully attuned to contextual specificities.”

Snyder said the conference spoke to this wider understanding of area studies: “This conference exemplifies globalized area studies in action.”

Lowenthal said he was eager to organize such a conference at Brown, especially in light of his longstanding relationship with the Watson Institute. He pointed to a talk he gave at Brown in 1993, in which he said the Institute should concentrate more on figuring out how scholars can contribute more effectively to the process of improving policy. Lowenthal said he hoped the conference would be a realization of that talk.

Lowenthal, whose career in academia spans more than four decades, went on to say that the aims of the “Scholars, Practitioners, and Inter American Affairs” conference aligned with his current research interests.

“At this stage of my career, I’m really very interested in trying to think systematically,” he said. “Thinking systematically about what scholars – who have an interest in impact in the real world, beyond libraries and classes – what they can do to be effective. “

“Are there lessons that can be learned from experience, as to the ways scholars can contribute to the improvement of public policy?” he asked.

The “Scholars, Practitioners, and Inter American Affairs” conference was co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Watson Institute.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor ‘12