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Coming out of the ivory tower: OpEd Project trains professionals to take thought-leadership positions in their fields.

When Hugh Hefner died Sept. 27, The Washington Post wanted to provide its readers analysis about the Playboy magazine founder's cultural influence. So the publication contacted Carolyn Bronstein, professor of media studies at DePaul University, whose area of specialization is the history of media representation of women.

The catch? The Post needed the article by that evening--a deadline that would seem impossible for most academics, who can spend months researching and writing carefully nuanced articles filled with data and citations to be published in academic journals.

But thanks to special training about how to write for popular media and how to get her voice into the public square, Bronstein said yes, and her co-authored piece, "Hugh Hefner's safe sex," ran just two days after his death.

Bronstein received this training through the OpEd Project, a national organization that works with universities, nonprofits and other community organizations to train people to take thought-leadership positions in their fields. The project's goal is to increase the voices of under-represented groups--including women and others--to shape society and the world.

"Scholars have to come out of the ivory tower and talk with the public," said Bronstein, who directs the OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship Program at DePaul and serves as the chair of the organization's national faculty advisory board.

"We've got this army of experts in this country who have all this knowledge about pressing issues, but they've been taught to be silent and just talk with one another," she said. "The more we can connect with the public, the better."

That's especially true at Catholic colleges and universities, where the mission often includes involvement in social justice and public life. Several Catholic schools are among the OpEd Project's clients, including Forclham University Loyola University Chicago and DePaul, which are parthers in the Public Voices program.

The project not only teaches the ins and outs of journalistic opinion writing, but also helps people in underrepresented groups to value their own knowledge and expertise. Its motto is "Whoever tells the story writes history"

Journalist Katie Orenstein founded the project in 2008 to increase the voices of women in op-ed pages, after surveys found that 85 percent of opinion writers were men, according to Catherine Baxter, manager of new business and partnerships. But it quickly broadened to include helping experts in underrepresented groups to use their knowledge in service of the public in various ways.

Such "thought leadership" can include speaking at conferences or on radio and television, contributing to government panels or commissions, being recognized with awards or otherwise getting ideas into society Baxter said.

At DePaul, the OpEd's fellowship program has reached 60 faculty members since 2011, with three 20-person cohorts completing a four-month series of trainings and one-on-one mentorship while working on a piece of public writing. Participants have included faculty from nearly every discipline, including law, business, music and health sciences, who represent racial, ethnic, sexual-orientation and other diversity

"I've seen it really transform people's careers and their sense of themselves as scholars," said Bronstein. "All of us want our work to have impact and public reach to people outside the academy. But to do that you've got to learn a different language."

In OpEd Project seminars, would-be writers are reminded to use plain language, own their expertise and stay current. Also, "perfect is the enemy of the good"--as Bronstein learned with her tight deadline on the Hefner piece.

Participants from DePaul have written books, given TED talks, testified at congressional hearings, joined local boards, and, yes, written newspaper op-eds. Their scholarship now reaches broader audiences and can help shed light on issues of public concern.

For example, Bronstein's piece on Hefner was more than one columnist's opinion; it offered a historical perspective on the sexual revolution and changes in the commercial sex industry based on her years of research. Likewise, when DePaul's Dorothy Kozlowski wrote an op-ed asking, "Should I let my son play football?" for the Chicago Tribune, she reflected not just as a parent but as a neurobiologist who studies traumatic brain injury.

Such writings are more accessible to students, too. "It helps students take me seriously as someone who not only cares about these issues in the classroom but who also shares my knowledge outside the classroom," Bronstein said.

Gina Messina, a professor of religious studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio, took it one step further, having students in her gender studies course co-write with her an opinion piece about "What's at stake for college women in the upcoming election" for The Huffmgton Post.

The mission at Ursuline, a Catholic college whose student body is predominantly female, includes helping young women become strong leaders in the community. "So this idea of connecting with the public with our scholarship and creating dialogue is definitely part of our social justice mission," said Messina.

It's also a way for faculty and experts at smaller schools, such as Ursuline, to have greater impact in national and international debates. Bringing different voices to the forefront is key, Messina said.

"A large percentage of people who write op-eds are repeat writers who are already publishing and getting out their ideas," she said.

Messina brought the project to Ursuline after participating in a training that was open to the public in California. The college hosted a one-day session in 2014 for 50 Uralline faculty members, who also received one year of mentoring with their writing.

Some published opinion pieces or started blogging. Messina's involvement has resulted in two books: Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay (2015) and the recently released Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again.

For the latter book, she worked with a comedian who writes for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" to "punch up" the text. Would some academics frown on that? Perhaps.

"But we have a new generation of academics who recognize the importance of connecting with social media and putting out public scholarship that connects with a wider range of people," she said.

"I think we need to be building a bridge between the academy and the greater community" Messina said. "We shouldn't be writing for ourselves, but be writing for positive change."

Her colleagues and administrators at Ursuline see the value of public scholarship, but publishing in The New York Times will never replace academic scholarship and writing. Still, some colleges and universities are revising tenure and promotion guidelines to give some credit for public intellectualism and popular writing.

"It will never take the place of peer-reviewed publication, but it can certainly enhance a case and argument that a person has achieved a level of stature and public recognition," which may count for promotion, Bronstein said.

By demonstrating universities' impact on their communities, public scholarship also can help with the demand for more accountability in higher education, especially as public funding for higher education is under attack and being slashed.

"The more we can help the public see why universities matter and how they contribute to society at large, the more we can help bridge the university and the community" Bronstein said.

But speaking out publicly can be risky, especially on controversial topics. The OpEd Project has a saying: "If you say things of consequence, there may be consequences. The alternative is to be inconsequential."

Bronstein agrees. "You can keep quiet and safe and secure in the academy, or you can choose to speak about issues that may land you in controversy" she said. "But that's fulfilling your mission as an intellectual."

Caption: --Carolyn Bronstein

Caption: A small breakout group of the 2013-14 cohort of the OpEd Project at DePaul University. Cohorts are pictured with their mentor-editors, who lead the project workshops.

Caption: --Carolyn Bronstein

Caption: The 2015-16 cohort of the OpEd Project at DePaul University

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Title Annotation:Colleges & Universities
Author:Schlumpf, Heidi
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 17, 2017
Words:1306
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