Vali Nasr: How do you break out of the ivory tower?

Vali Nasr is an Iranian-American political commentator and scholar of contemporary Islam. Born in Iran, Nasr and his family immigrated to the United States following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nasr received a BA from Tufts University in 1981 and a masters from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1984. He earned his PhD from MIT in political science in 1991.

Known for his view that wars within Islam will shape the future, Nasr has testified before Congress and has advised the President and Vice-President regarding sectarian violence in Iraq. Nasr is the author The Shia Revival, Democracy in Iran, and The Islamic Leviathan.

He has taught at the University of San Diego and the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard and Professor of International Politics at Tufts. A Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nasr has been published in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. He is an editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Islam and has appeared on CNN, the BBC, National Public Radio, and not least of all The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

  • Transcript


Vali Nasr: American academia provides a lot of support for professors for researchers to travel outside of the United States, to focus on the countries that they are interested in, go there, spend time.

There are yearly scholarships like Fulbright that are a much shorter run scholarship.

The problem of knowing the country you’re working on, unless it’s a country like Iran or North Korea, is not really a problem in the United States. There’s ample funding and opportunity to travel.

The problem is not to get bogged down in the trees, and to keep a perspective about the forest; to have a broader perspective of where does your little country or your little area fits in much broader trends in the world.

And at the same time, also it’s a challenge for American academics to remain relevant. Because I think American society is not a society that values intellectuals. It’s not like France. Intellectuals are not a cherished aristocracy within [American] society. They are sort of isolated within their own ivory tower, and it’s very easy for them to just to talk to one another through their own lectures, through their own books, through their own mediums and lose sight of what is the relevance of what I’m doing for the broader public, for American foreign policy.

We often hear this complaint that, well, the United States is planning all these grand things to do in the Middle East. And here are all these experts sitting at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UCLA, etc., and they actually have no input into policymaking. Nobody asks them questions.  That’s a huge challenge that I think is structural to the United States. It’s structural to the way in which the establishment in America – foreign policy establishment, business establishments in New York – really don’t take American intellectuals seriously. University is for education. And then after that, the professional lives don’t really interact with academia very effectively.

Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007