Diverse faculty shift national discourse one op-ed at a time

By: Susan Kelley,  Cornell Chronicle
April 10, 2016

The voices shaping the important conversations of our age, from racial unrest to income inequality and the war on cancer, are now a little more diverse, thanks to a group of Cornell faculty members.

Twenty women and underrepresented minority faculty members have been publishing opinion pieces in the mainstream media – including The New York Times, Ebony, The Hill and Time magazine. Their success is thanks to their participation in the Public Voices Fellowship program, which aims to dramatically increase the impact of the nation’s top underrepresented thinkers. This is the second year the fellowship, which is sponsored by the Provost’s Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, has taken place at Cornell.

“I want my scholarship to have a public purpose. I’m committed to sharing my work with the broadest possible audience,” said Sara Warner, a Public Voices fellow and associate professor of performing and media arts.

Warner recently wrote an opinion piece in Time arguing that companies should still offer their employees domestic partner benefits even though same-sex marriage is now legal. She published another piece in the Huffington Post, about a documentary series on transgender revolutionaries, that got 2,400 “likes” and was reposted hundreds of times on Facebook.

“A story that goes viral on mainstream media can reach thousands and thousands of people,” Warner said. “Whereas academic writing takes months, years, even decades to publish, editorials and thought pieces can have an immediate impact.”

How immediate? Almost instantaneous, in the case of Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and human development. Her opinion piece in The New York Times, on how kids exposed to foreign languages have superior social skills, was the most emailed article on the Times’ website for nearly three days in mid-March.

Interviews on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and WNYC, New York City’s flagship public radio station, soon followed. The exposure is important, Kinzler said, because her research could be a factor in policy decisions on bilingual education. Public Voices gave her the motivation to write about her research for a general audience, she said. “It reframed my thinking about my work to see it as publically relevant.”

The yearlong fellowship is run by the OpEd Project, a nonprofit that attempts to diversify the demographics of public discourse, broadening its overwhelming reliance on Western, white and privileged voices who represent a decreasing fraction of an increasingly diverse society.

Public Voices’ master journalists meet with the Cornell fellows four times a year, challenging them to think more expansively not only about their scholarship but also their responsibility for sharing it. The faculty members also learn specific techniques on how to break their knowledge into understandable chunks, use their research to make strong arguments and take advantage of the appeal of the counterintuitive idea.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is how to make their work relevant to current events, said Mary C. Curtis, Public Voices senior facilitator.

“It’s a skill, it’s not magic,” said Curtis, a multimedia journalist and Roll Call columnist who has been a writer and editor with The New York Times, Baltimore Sun and Washington Post. “You see guests on talk shows do it all the time. No matter what they are asked, they bring it back to what they want to talk about.”

The fellows also receive ongoing support from facilitators and each other via an active Google group. Once a month, they have a conference call with a “media gatekeeper,” such as an editor with The Guardian. When the program ends in September, fellows will have access to the Public Voices’ mentor-editor network, a pool of more than 100 high-caliber journalists and editors.

With the fellowship only half over, it has already generated a number of successes. An editorial in Ebony by Kevin Gaines, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Africana Studies and History, suggests that racial unrest on campuses is rooted in public policies that result in segregated neighborhoods. Universities are usually the first place young whites encounter African-Americans as social equals or in positions of decision-making authority, he wrote.

And Cynthia Reinhart-King, associate professor of biomedical engineering and a cancer researcher, advocated in The Hill for more cancer research funding.

Curtis points out that the fellows can apply these skills in all sorts of venues, from TED talks to campus lecture halls.

“If you’re teaching a class of freshmen, you have to gain their attention quickly, be passionate, get them involved,” Curtis said. “This fellowship is not just about op-eds. It’s about sharing your voice.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

Two members of the Public Voices Fellowship program talking