Faculty help diversify the op-ed landscape

Cornell’s voice is being heard worldwide a bit louder than before thanks to the efforts of 20 faculty members recruited last fall as Public Voices Fellows.

Since Cornell assembled the group in November, fellows have placed op-ed articles in newspapers and online publications and offered their expertise in radio and television interviews, on topics including the dangers of parents opting their children out of vaccinations, how prejudice and inequality drive young men to become terrorists, and why America is failing in mathematics education.

Their work also is increasing the diversity of major public opinion forums. The Public Voices program is a spinoff of the national Op-Ed Project, which has enlisted universities, think tanks, foundations, nonprofits, corporations and community organizations to recruit women and members of underrepresented minorities and provide them with resources to present their ideas in national media.

According to the Op-Ed Project, “The voices we hear from in the world come from a tiny fraction of society – mostly Western, white, privileged and overwhelmingly male.”

Cornell invited a diverse group of faculty members to apply for Public Voices Fellowships, accepting open applications and nominations by deans. Fellows were selected for their expertise and, to some extent, their passion.

“We asked why they thought they were underrepresented and why they wanted a voice,” said Yael Levitte, associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity.

For the past year fellows have participated in workshops aimed at perfecting their writing for lay audiences and giving them tools to pitch their ideas to the media. They are mentored by experienced journalists who work with them on their op-eds and provide media contacts.

“We had group sessions where we brainstormed ideas,” explained Tara Holm, associate professor of mathematics. “In between sessions we each paired up with a leader to get some feedback, and they would send our pieces to editors they know.”

There have been three group sessions with the mentors so far this year, with one more to go, along with monthly teleconferences.

“We’re not teaching faculty how to write; they’re experts at writing,” Levitte said. “We’re supporting their efforts to make their writing accessible to broader audiences and offering tools to improve their ability to sell themselves to editors who get more requests than they can accept.”

“It was a great opportunity to learn how to connect with the public in a way I haven’t before,” Holm said.
Holm placed op-ed articles in the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, discussing the problems with math education in American schools, and on “Pi Day” (March 14), she explained the significance of Pi in science and engineering.

Cynthia Leifer, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, expressed her frustration with parents who opt their children out of vaccinations in an op-ed article for CNN online, which led to invitations to do live interviews in media including the Huffingon Post Live and the BBC, all pegged to news about a measles outbreak at Disneyland.

“Academics are usually resistant to step outside our comfort zone,” Leifer said. “Public Voices is prodding us to think outside of our small box in academia. I hope they continue the program and other people will be willing to take a chance and speak out and become thought leaders.”

Fellows at various institutions stay in contact through email lists and sometimes write together. After the year is out they will still stay in contact with their mentors.

“Part of what the mentors are doing is persuading some of the fellows that it’s important to influence public opinion,” Levitte concluded.

Support for the Public Voices Fellowship program comes from the Office of the Provost and the President’s Council of Cornell Women.

Media Contact

John Carberry