I recently went with a friend to an event at Columbia University, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Ph.D. program in sustainable development. At the beginning of the event, the organizers screened a short clip with interviews of students and faculty in the program. One of the students said that one of the most amazing things about the program is that you read op-eds of great thinkers and practitioners, such as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz, and then you see them in the halls and in class. I was completely in awe.
As a Hunter College student who came to this event with a copy of The Price of Inequality to have signed by Stiglitz (I already have a signed book by Jeffrey Sachs), I couldn’t grasp what it would be like to have such a well-known thinker as your professor. The next day, after finishing an econometrics exam, I saw that Paul Krugman has decided to move from Princeton University to the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. My first reaction, naturally on Facebook, was “This is epic!” It is epic, but not only for the students of CUNY. Paul Krugman’s decision should also start a discussion about inequality, prices of education, and the role of prominent scholars in this debate.
Krugman’s announcement came shortly after Cathy Davidson, a prominent English professor and expert on the digital humanities – and a scholar who frequently talks about the centrality of public higher education -- announced that she was moving from Duke University to CUNY’s Graduate Center.
Professor Krugman, is a New York Times columnist and a Nobel laureate in economics. He wrote in his New York Times blog that he is moving to work in CUNY’s Luxembourg Income Study Center because, “more and more of my work has focused on issues of income inequality, and nobody does more important work producing the hard data on which all of this work relies than the Luxembourg Income Study.” Professor Krugman sees CUNY and the Luxembourg Income Study as a natural continuation of his work. In addition, Krugman added, “I also, to be honest, like the idea of being associated with a great public university.”
Almost any intro-level economics class will start with the explanation that consumers and suppliers are both rational decision makers, working for their own self-interest. The assumption (or maybe the hope) is that when all actors work in their own-self interest, the “invisible hand” works so they are also serving the needs of the society at large. Krugman, in his self-interest, moved to CUNY, and in doing so bolsters a system of colleges and universities in which most of the students don’t have the resources to go to private universities where Nobel laureates roam the halls on a daily basis.
In his writings, Krugman has frequently discussed inequality and the importance of regulation on the market to reduce inequality. But what about the inequalities students face when they choose their university? I frequently hear great scholars praise public universities such as CUNY for allowing access to higher education to many New Yorkers who would not have otherwise been able to fund their education, but many of these scholars choose their intellectual homes to be the same private universities that cause most of their students to end their undergraduate education with huge levels of student debt. Elite private universities offer professors resources and name recognition, which can help them pursue their ambitions. Of course, private universities also on average pay much more than public universities, even top public universities.
This is a very mixed message. On one hand, these scholars say that the government should invest more in public institutions so more young people can get quality higher education. On the other hand, by choosing to work in private institutions they send the message that state universities are not good enough for them. Too many students at public universities, including those who are passionate about social equity and social good, dream about Ivy League graduate schools, or – for those seeking careers in academe – jobs at the kinds of places that Professors Krugman and Davidson are leaving. These universities are the homes of their intellectual heroes.
Those who wish to inspire will be much more effective if they also act as role models, like Krugman. Through his move to CUNY, Professor Krugman demonstrated he is willing to practice what he preaches, and is joining a university with top faculty and students.
As an international student from Israel who came to New York City with the hopes of earning a liberal arts education, I was extremely intimidated by the prices of many of the universities where I considered applying. Hunter College, as part of the CUNY system, offers affordable in-state and out-of-state tuition, which gave me the opportunity to pursue my academic ambitions. Before coming to Hunter, I completed national service in Israel as a medic, and I was sure that I wanted to be a doctor. However, at Hunter I was given the opportunity to explore other disciplines, and I discovered through inspirational professors that my true passion is economics and politics.
Currently, universities like CUNY are homes to amazing scholarship opportunities for both students and faculty, but the gap between the opportunities at public and private universities could be bridged if more distinguished scholars joined public institutions. I am not diminishing or dismissing the value of the amazing private institutions here in America, but just like minimizing the income gap would still leave some people wealthier than others, so too can this gap in education be minimized. I don’t expect Hunter College to compete with Harvard University in scholarly opportunities or in faculty pay, but having distinguished faculty such as Paul Krugman in a public institution lifts the level of attractiveness of affordable education.
Finally, on a personal note, Professor Krugman, thank you so much for coming to CUNY. I am a B.A./M.A. student in economics at Hunter, and I will come and knock on your door when I start looking for a thesis adviser. You will probably say no because it isn’t your job, but it won’t be the answer that is important. It will be the fact that at that moment I got an opportunity to approach you, at the graduate school of my university.
A Duke professor recently used the magic word in an op-ed article she published, resulting in an invitation to visit a U.S. Senate office to discuss legislation affecting millions of children.
The magic word was "I." It's a word academics should include more often when writing op-ed articles for audiences beyond their campuses.
The professor wrote about her research showing orphanages in developing countries to be better than many Americans believe. She argued that well-intentioned legislation now before Congress would close too many orphanages and harm children unlikely to be adopted by nurturing families. The senator, one of the legislation's sponsors, was among those who saw the article.
That's impressive impact for a 750-word op-ed article, which requires far less time to write than a scholarly journal article or book. A well-written op-ed can change minds, sway hearts and affect policy. It can advance the author's career and the university's reputation. It also can serve the public interest, bringing faculty expertise to debates about everything from national security to the arts.
For faculty to play this role, however, they need to become more willing to use the word "I."
In the case of the orphanage op-ed, which our office edited and placed in several papers around the country, the author had the advantage of making an interesting point about a timely issue affecting children. What made her article compelling, however, was how she opened with a story about a Cambodian teenager who was forced to leave an orphanage and ended up becoming a "karaoke girl" who has sex with customers. The author wrote that this teenager illustrates the problem she has seen in several countries.
She maintained her first-person voice through her final paragraph, where she expressed satisfaction that Congress is addressing this issue and hopes the bill will be modified to continue supporting orphanages. To describe what she did in movie terms: She started with a "tight shot," pulled the camera back to show the "long shot" and used a character throughout to propel the narrative.
This approach is dramatically different than in most journal articles. There the author typically reveals the conclusion only at the end, festooned with caveats, after requiring the reader to wade through pages of experimental protocols or dense analysis. That approach simply doesn't work with a newspaper reader who is sitting half-awake at the breakfast table, flipping through the editorial pages en route to the local news and sports scores.
Academic articles also eschew the use of "I" or "me." Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. Pundits should dazzle with their intellect, they're told, not with anecdotes or emotion. As scientists and others like to point out, the plural of anecdotes is not data.
That's true, of course, but also self-defeating when it comes to placing an article with the editors of op-ed pages, where competition can be intense. This reluctance of academics to come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories is one of the biggest reasons why so many of them are disappointed when editors reject their articles. It's certainly possible to address an issue effectively with a third-person "voice of the expert," but academics should not consider this their only option.
My colleague Keith Lawrence and I have helped Duke faculty members and students place dozens of op-ed articles every year, something I also did while running an op-ed service for a decade at the National Academy of Sciences. We've learned that, all things being equal, articles fare better when authors share their own experience along with their professional analysis. If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can't afford the medication you prescribed. If you are concerned about fracking, describe the homeowners who told you their water tastes strange.
You shouldn't violate anyone's confidentiality and you don't want to sound like a reality TV star. When you share your own humanity, however, your words ring truer. Readers care more about what you are saying. This is why presidents of the United States, regardless of party, place "real Americans" next to the First Lady when they deliver their State of the Union speeches. They know viewers will pay more attention to Lieutenant Smith, the brave soldier who just returned from Afghanistan, than to an abstract discussion about military policy.
Why do we have the Ryan White CARE Act and other laws named for individuals? Why do politicians on the campaign trail inevitably tell us about the family they met yesterday? For better or worse, human beings make sense of the world through examples. Academics who recognize this are not trivializing themselves or disavowing the intellectual rigor of their research. Rather, they are embracing reality and engaging readers effectively.
Americans who read op-ed pages are not stupid. They are more educated and engaged than the public as a whole. Many have expertise of their own. But they're also busy and, like all people, are wondering how an issue affects them personally. As they gulp a cup of coffee and race through the morning paper before heading to work, they want to hear real stories and voices.
They also want to feel a connection with the author. If you are a professor at Penn hoping to place an op-ed with The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, look for a way to mention something that makes clear you're a neighbor.
Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they'd improve their chances if they'd lighten up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles -- known in the trade as "thumb suckers" -- and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from popular culture as well as from Eminent Authorities.
Most of all they want to see the magic word "I." More academics should use it.
David Jarmul is the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University.