Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning at the State Department and a professor emerita at Princeton University, is the president and chief executive of the New America Foundation. This essay is adapted from a longer version appearing in the Weekly Wonk.
When I left the State Department in January 2011, I was grateful to return to a tenured position at an idyllic university. I considered going back to Washington in a future administration after my sons, now 14 and 17, went to college or at least left the house. But as I made clear in an article I wrote in the summer of 2012 for the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” I was thrilled to be back home with them in the remaining time that we could all be together, under one roof.
So no one is more surprised than I am that I left Princeton — taking on the Yoda-like status of “professor emerita” — for a new job that once again has me commuting, yes, to Washington a few days a week (though on my own schedule now).
I wouldn’t have done this for a government job or a position at another university. No, the singular appeal of my new job as president and chief executive of the New America Foundation is the chance to widen the transmission belt that moves academic ideas toward policy and action.
That transmission belt between the academy and Washington is frayed these days. In many disciplines, the worlds of the university and of government are growing further apart. In international relations, for instance, leading scholars used to move in and out of government far more often than they do today. McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger were Harvard professors; Walt Rostow hailed from MIT; Zbigniew Brzezinski came from Columbia; George Shultz had been at Stanford. And the list goes on.
Over the years, however, the growing specialization of many academic fields has made that passage harder to navigate. At the same time, Washington think tanks have proliferated, adding endowed chairs and research centers that attract highly qualified experts and that often replicate the intellectual infrastructure that once only universities could provide.
Great American universities, however, still host the world’s best thinkers and researchers. Many of these scholars have plenty to say about the most important problems facing our nation. In addition to tapping the many talented journalists, analysts and advocates who make up Washington’s intellectual community, I hope that the New America Foundation can provide a better link between scholars and politicians, and can engage a broader swath of the public in designing and implementing solutions to the nation’s problems.
I was initially attracted to New America, and became a board member 10 years ago, because of its dedication to the proposition that the United States periodically reinvents itself. Ted Halstead, New America’s founding president, suggested to his fellow visionaries — including Michael Lind, Sherle Schwenninger and Walter Russell Mead — that their institution be named after Lind’s 1995 book, “The Next American Nation.” In it, Lind argued that each reinvention of America, however incomplete and imperfect, has produced a better society than the one that preceded it. Reconstruction improved on the antebellum republic, and the New Deal created a “new America” that represented a great advance over the Gilded Age.