Many universities believe they provide a forum for elite and cutting edge debate, but grow frustrated when the loudest and most expert campus voices fail to break out of the ivory tower to influence real policy with their writing.
I once belonged to an academic listserv in which professors would complain that the New York Times or Washington Post had refused to publish their op-ed or letter to the editor. They would use the listserv to send their unsuccessful submission—all 2,800 unfocused words of it—to their friends and colleagues.
When I was still working toward my Ph.D., one Yale professor confided to me that “theory is for people who don’t have libraries.” Alas, too few professors nowadays hit the libraries or, when trying to publish an op-ed, bother with fieldwork. In the run-up to the Iraq War, for example, some professors complained that government and the popular media did not embrace their knowledge, never mind that they often were experts in the wrong century or country.
Additionally, no matter how expert they are, faculty members reflect poorly on their ability to cull information when they embrace politicized websites as neutral or even credible. Neocon conspiracies may play well at Huffington Post, but even liberals and progressives with experience in government recognize they have no bearing on reality. When professors embrace political conspiracy theories as fact, they simply facilitate the job of junior editors who must cull the wheat from the chaff when sorting through op-ed submissions.
Now, Yale University is attempting to help some faculty members break into op-ed writing, with this program. The good administrators at Yale University do not seem to realize it’s not just the inability to write concisely on relevant topics which hampers faculty voices from reaching mainstream newspapers and websites, but also ideas. American liberal arts universities have long since ceased being intellectually stimulating places, as most professors and guests on campus represent a range of debate far narrower than that in the broader policy world. Rather than focus on the problem in terms of gender or color as Yale does, it would behoove the university to tackle instead intellectual diversity. There is much less space between liberal black men, liberal white men, liberal women, or liberal blue dwarfs than there would be between liberals of any race and gender, and conservatives of any race and gender.
Sometimes it pays to be color blind and focus on the merit of an idea rather than whomever happens to be making it. By designing the program to focus on identity groups, Yale’s attempt to bolster op-ed production becomes a self-parody of why so many top-tier universities fail to produce ideas with traction.