Professors make voices heard on opinion pages

By Amanda Ruggeri

Staff reporter



Sometimes, Yale professors are in the news. And sometimes, Yale professors write the news.

Opening The New York Times or The Washington Post to see an opinion piece by-lined by a recognizable Yale name is a common occurrence. History professor Paul Kennedy has a syndicated column with Tribune Media Services, while his colleague Jonathan Spence is regularly called upon to comment on current affairs in China. Others opine on a variety of topics, from political science to literature.

The processes for having an op-ed published differs for each publication. But the authors all said they have the same motivation for writing: They hope to contribute to public discourse.

Peter Schuck, a professor at the Law School, is one of Yale’s frequently published op-ed writers. He has written dozens of opinion pieces for publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times and American Lawyer. Schuck said he sees no inconsistency between being a serious scholar and an op-ed writer.

“We should be in the business of communicating to different audiences,” he said. “And not that many people read law review articles, and serious [academic] books.”

But Schuck and other professors said their colleagues are not necessarily impressed by their journalistic forays.

“There’s a certain degree to which academics view op-eds as a sort of second or third class form of writing,” said Jerry Mashaw, professor of law and management. “You could have used the same time working further on your complete history of American administrative law, instead of writing 700 words on social security.”

Mashaw said there seems to be disdain, and even envy, on the part of professors who do not write opinion pieces for publications. There is a common tendency among faculty members to dismiss their colleagues as being “vulgar popularizers,” he said.

Mashaw has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and The Miami Herald, among other publications.

But an op-ed writer can also be an excellent academic, said Robert Semple ’59, who edited the Opinions and Editorials page of The New York Times from 1982 to 1988 and remains associate editor of the page.

“I understand that writing an op-ed won’t get you tenure in the English, or history, or political science department,” Semple said. “But a well-written op-ed shouldn’t hurt your reputation.”

And the influence of an op-ed, whether 750 words or 1,500 words, should not be underestimated, Semple said.

Schuck said he does not want to overestimate the influence of his opinion pieces. But he is hopeful they have some effect. To increase their potential influence, he has compiled 40 of his published articles into a book that will be published this summer. Titled “Meditations of a Militant Moderate: Cool Views on Hot Topics,” it covers a variety of subjects, from surrogate motherhood to slavery reparations.

Mashaw once had an arrangement with the Los Angeles Times to supply the paper with monthly columns. And Schuck is often contacted by the American Lawyer and the Jurist, an online publication. Yet for other periodicals, they said, they usually send their op-ed pieces without being requested.

While submitting unrequested opinion pieces is the general rule of thumb for most writers and professors, a few are contacted for pieces by the publications themselves.

When Semple ran The New York Times page, he had a list of experts he would call on for columns on various issues, he said. He would also receive unsolicited op-eds from writers, but when a crisis came up in a specific area of expertise — for example, Middle Eastern politics — he would have a list of names to contact.

But that did not mean the same names appeared over and over in his pages.

“I had a rule of six months,” Semple said. “Nobody, I don’t care how famous, could appear on my page more than two times a year.”

History professor Jonathan Spence is one of today’s go-to experts for pieces on China. Spence said he has never offered to write an opinion piece. And even when a publication calls him to write an op-ed, he said he does not always accept.

“If I have something really original, I will,” he said. “If not, I say, sorry. I don’t join a chorus.”

Conversely, Diplomat-in-Residence Charles Hill said he will never turn down an offer to write an op-ed.

Sometimes, his habit of saying yes can be problematic, he said. Last summer, The Wall Street Journal asked him to submit an op-ed on the 9/11 Commission before the report had been released. He had to scramble to find a way to look at the unreleased report.

“Even when a piece is apparently impossible to do, when I have had to give lectures or travel, I still do it,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal, where Hill most often is published, will e-mail him the morning before they want to run the piece. If it is the weekend, they might e-mail him Friday for a Monday piece, he said.

The challenge of writing quickly and eloquently concentrates your intellectual energies in a unique way, Hill said. But Hill, like Spence, said he does not seek out publication. Some of that, he said, is because of the evanescence of op-eds.

“They don’t have much staying power,” he said. “They don’t stick in the minds of people. I can’t remember a single New York Times op-ed that I can recall, even in the past couple of months.”

With the advent of the Internet, though, op-eds seem to have more of an influence today than they did in the past, Mashaw said.

Mashaw usually writes on social insurance and social policy. Often, he said, he will receive e-mail attachments from groups on both sides of the Social Scurity privatization debate that include one of his opinion pieces.

And because it is so much easier to e-mail writers about pieces, Mashaw said he receives more responses from readers than he has in the past. Just last week, he received a response on his Newsday op-ed about the social security privatization plan. The writer was on the council of economic advisors who is working on the social security plan.

“I got a nice, polite, two-page, but objecting e-mail from somebody in the Bush administration,” he said.

Semple said the attitudes of Yale professors toward op-eds also seems to have shifted in the past 15 years. In the 1980s when he edited the page, Yale faculty sent in few op-eds compared to their colleagues at Princeton or Columbia.

“Yale faculty were rather bashful compared to what they are now,” he said. “Now, they’re more talkative.”

Op-ed writers are paid for their pieces. Flat payments range from $75 to $500 depending on the publication, professors said. But money is not the motivating factor.

“It complicates your tax return more than fills your pocket,” Mashaw said, laughing.

The money is not why most professors write op-eds.

“You do it because it’s a way to get your thoughts before a wide audience,” Hill said.

And even if op-eds are fairly temporary forms of literature, the professors agreed opinion pieces are one more way to incite public discourse.

“The hope is that it makes some contribution to conversation, and sometimes it does,” Mashaw said. “But you’re not going to have an effect if you stay silent.”

Comments