Investing in thought leadership is an opportunity for universities to be of service to the wider public, says Carina Ray, Fordham Public Voices Fellow

Ravenna, Junior Fellow, here with a real treat today. We’ve been fortunate enough to snag an excerpt from Fordham Public Voices Fellow Carina Ray’s forthcoming article for a special issue of Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiquesedited by Antoinette Burton. In this piece on writing history for a variety of publics, Carina Ray draws upon her personal experience as a columnist for New African magazine to discuss the challenges she faced writing for a non-academic publication, as well as the racial politics of writing while racially ambiguous for a racially conscious Pan-African magazine.  She concludes the essay by turning to her encounter with The OpEd Project and suggesting that if the humanities are to survive the current economic crisis, which has caused many to question the utility of a liberal arts education, universities need to more actively support the efforts of scholars who are writing for audiences beyond the narrow confines of academia:

Through my involvement as a Public Voices Thought Leader fellow with The OpEd Project, I am part of a cohort of twenty scholars at Fordham University who are actively engaged in finding concrete ways of ensuring that our knowledge and expertise are of public value.  Designed to increase the number of women in thought leadership, The OpEd Project measures its success, in part, by the number of women who appear on the op-ed pages of local, national, and international newspapers and other leading thought forums.[i]  My first OpEd Project thought piece, entitled “Gaddafi and the Mercenary Myth,” appeared on the Huffington Post and debunked the idea that Gadaffi had unleashed black African mercenaries to put down the Libyan rebellion.  I argued that despite being a largely bogus claim, the mercenary myth gained traction with many ordinary Libyans because “it tapped into the smoldering resentment that many Libyans harbored against Gaddafi’s gradual shift away form the Arab world in favor of Africa.”[ii]  On-line forums, like the Huffington Post, with their barely mediated comment boards can be a tough place to write for, but they do reach a very wide audience.

I do not see myself becoming a regular blogger for the Huffington Post, but I am thrilled to be part of a wider movement, through The OpEd Project, that is changing the face of thought leadership, and in turn, diversifying the kinds of public conversations that are happening in the world today.  The 2011-2012 academic year marks the beginning of The OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowship Program with four universities: Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and Fordham. While Fordham already recognizes public writing in annual performance and merit increase evaluations, its enthusiastic response to this initiative suggests to me that it views public thought leadership as an area of faculty development worth investing in not simply because it raises the profile of the university, but because the university has a responsibility to be of service to the wider public.  As this program grows so too will the number of historians, sociologists, legal and literary scholars, astrophysicists, biologists, anthropologists, and linguists, among others, who are intervening in and shaping the most crucial conversations of our time.  It is my hope that as this happens more academic institutions will attune themselves to the importance of writing for diverse publics.  It is not enough to simply tolerate scholars who choose to speak to audiences far beyond the confines of the academy.  Universities need to actively support these kinds of efforts if institutions of higher learning, and most especially the Humanities, are to remain relevant amidst the tumultuous economic upheavals that have led many to question the utility of a liberal arts education.[iii]

[i] http://www.theopedproject.org/

[ii] Carina Ray, “Gaddafi and the Mercenary Myth,” The Huffington Post, 27 September 2011,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carina-ray/gaddafi-mercenaries_b_983506.html.

[iii] See for example, Scott Carlson, “At Conference for College Presidents, Concern About the Future of the Liberal Arts,”The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 January 2011, http://www.thechronicle.info/article/At-Conference-for-College/125810/.

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