Women Faculty Forum project boosting diversity of voices in op-ed pieces

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Professor Jodie Sindelar chats with Annie Murphy Paul, one of the leaders of the OpEd Project seminar. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

A group of senior Yale faculty members met recently with contributors and columnists from the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, Time, and NPR. Coffee in hand, they chatted about the writing process and their own practices; they also talked about the difference between an “idea” versus a “topic,” how to pitch articles to media outlets, and coping with such challenges as restrictive word counts and tight deadlines.

Recounting her recent experience with the latter, seminar leader and author Annie Murphy Paul ’95 B.A. chuckled about having to rush to create a 300-word article — assigned on a Friday for a Monday deadline — while juggling two children’s birthday parties and hosting her own dinner party the same weekend.

“Let me get this straight,” joked fellow seminar leader, journalist Katherine Lanpher. “When the New York Times calls you and asks you to drop everything, you know what to say, right?”

“Absolutely. You say  ‘no problem,’” Paul laughed.

The meeting between faculty and professional writers took place during an intensive two-day session of the OpEd Project’s Public Voices Thought Leadership Fellowship at Yale. Since the program launched in May 2011, a group of 20 senior faculty fellows have participated in quarterly meetings, generating work and receiving feedback from writing mentors and a network of scholars throughout the year. All of Yale’s participants are noted scholars and experts in their fields of study, and they all are from groups only seldom represented on the nation’s op-ed pages — i.e., women and minority men.

The OpEd Project aims to shift the dynamic of public discourse and increase gender equity and greater diversity in thought leadership and public debate by mentoring women and minority men at universities, community organizations, non-profits and corporations. Founded in 2008 by veteran journalist Katie Orenstein, the national OpEd program connects individuals from these underrepresented groups with top writers and editors for “head-to-head” critiques of actual working drafts. Since the Yale component of the program began, the participating faculty members have successfully published 12 pieces in the Huffington Post, PBS, CNN, and the Christian Science Monitor.

According to Orenstein, the current range of voices in op-ed pieces is quite narrow — 85% are written by men. “The OpEd Project focuses on what we call ‘front door idea forums’ — where public thought leadership begins — not because we care about op-eds or commentary per se, but because these forums feed all other media and drive thought leadership at higher and higher levels across all industries.”

“This is exponentially true,” she adds, “in the new media landscape, where studies repeatedly show that commentary is the most powerful package for transmitting an idea of public value on a mass scale. These forums are a great starting place for changing the world’s conversation, strategically a smart place to start.”

Orenstein continues, “Universities — which incubate knowledge — can play a key role in changing the narrow dynamic of our world’s conversation, and in cultivating a new wave of diverse brainpower around the world. We are so thrilled to be piloting this program with Yale, which took a chance with us and is the first university to come on board for the Public Voices Fellowship program. We are about to launch similar programs with Princeton, Stanford and Fordham in the next two months.”

The Office of the Provost and the Women Faculty Forum are sponsoring the Yale program. “Making the voices of female and minority male faculty more publically accessible is great both for Yale and for their own professional growth. Their voices and opinions matter and hold weight. Elevating their ability to join the public arena increases the likelihood of being sought out as an expert or author,” says Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for faculty development and diversity.

Yale faculty member Laura Wexler spearheaded the effort to bring the program to campus. In addition to being former co-chair of the Women Faculty Forum, Wexler is professor of American Studies and of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and director of the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale.

“There are barriers to entry into broader public debate, even for distinguished women and minority men in top academic research institutions, that impoverish us all,” says Wexler. “The Public Voices Thought Leadership Program concentrates less on questioning why those barriers exist and more on teaching us how to break through them. The program is tremendously empowering, and it demonstrably affects the public sphere.”

Wexler recently published “Eyewitness testimony often lies”  on CNN.com on the eve of the execution of Troy Davis. In the article, Wexler asserts that the frequency of mistaken identifications unjustly affects the number of wrongful executions — drawing upon her own experience as an eyewitness of incorrectly identifying a crime suspect.

Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of astronomy and physics and chair of the Yale Women Faculty Forum, hopes to see this program grow in the future into an established, valuable resource for Yale faculty. Natarajan also recently published an op-ed titled “Close the Math Gap” on the Huffington Post website in August.

“Learning to repackage one’s academic expertise to make it accessible to a general audience is an art form that I am glad to have had the opportunity to learn from this project,” Natarajan remarks.

So far this year, published pieces from Yale faculty fellows developed through the program include:

There is more about the OpEd Project and the Women Faculty Forum on their respective websites.

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