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Northwestern Voices In Media Making A Big Difference

Seeking applications for program that helps faculty influence national dialogue and legislation

  • Past fellows shaping public conversations around important social issues
  • Applications for 2015 Public Voices Thought Leadership Fellowship program due July 31
  • Dozens of Northwestern faculty have published opinion pieces in publications worldwide

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University faculty are influencing lawmakers and adding their expertise to the national dialogue about hot topics such as the death penalty, race relations and health care through the Public Voices Thought Leadership Fellowship Program.

The program, now in its fourth year through the Office of the Provost, is accepting applications for 2015 Fellows. All full-time Northwestern faculty who want to increase their visibility and influence as thought leaders in academia and the world at large are invited to apply.

There have been hundreds of mentions or published works from Northwestern Fellows in the media since the program was implemented in 2012, and many opinion pieces have made an impact on historic events.

Fellows use resources provided by the program to develop and refine ideas or arguments they are advancing, based upon their research programs, in the form of op‐eds and columns that can be pitched to media outlets. 

“I was told that my op-ed likely influenced the state legislature to override the veto that led to repealing the death penalty in Nebraska,” said Juliet Sorensen, clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law and a past Public Voices Fellow.

In a column published in the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper, Sorensen shared an eloquent passage that her grandfather, C.A. Sorensen, wrote in 1929, when he, a Republican, was the Nebraska attorney general. As part of his duties, he sat on the Pardon and Parole Board and in 1929 he was asked to weigh in on commuting a prisoner’s death sentence to life in prison. In an opinion to the board, he wrote:

“If the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the social philosophy of today then this young man’s plea for life should be spurned; he should be killed with all the torture that the ancients invented. But is that our social philosophy? Has not humanitarianism based on the teachings of the Nazarene also a place in our thinking? ... Capital punishment seems to me a survival of barbarism.”

Sorensen ran across this passage while researching her grandfather’s career for an unrelated academic paper. She knew the words were powerful, especially coming from a Republican politician in a conservative state. As the debate in Nebraska heated up in early 2015, her grandfather’s words from the past seemed extremely relevant, and she used her training from the Public Voices fellowship to craft an opinion piece.

“I decided to share the story and pitch it to the Lincoln Journal Star because I hoped that it might not only be relevant but have some influence on the debate,” she said.

Her column made an immediate impression on lawmakers. Sorensen heard from former Congressman John Cavanaugh of Omaha that Nebraska State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist was having the column distributed to every senator in the legislature.

She also heard from former Nebraska governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey that “your wonderful op-ed in the Journal Star this morning might have given two legislators the courage to override the veto,” she said.

Days later, Nebraska banned the death penalty, a historic move for a predominantly Republican state. 

“I benefited from the program enormously, in multiple ways,” Sorensen said. “My writing improved, my creative thinking improved, and I also believe that the program is a wonderful professional opportunity.”

Other fellows contributed their expertise during big news stories of the past year, too.

Bruce Lambert, a Public Voices Fellow and professor in the department of communication studies and the director of the Center for Communication and Health in the School of Communication, lent his expertise during the Ebola Crisis. He wrote about how hospitals should respond in the wake of mistakes made with Ebola cases in the U.S., backing his arguments up with current research, including his own. 

“I would say that the Public Voices Fellowship was the most fun and most rewarding professional development opportunity I have participated in during my 24-year academic career,” Lambert said.

Another Fellow used her expertise to shed light on the national conversation that emerged when Indian American children took top spots during the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, was published in more than a dozen media outlets sharing her argument that immigrant culture may influence South Asian children’s successes in spelling. She also wrote about the unfair stereotypes.

“The fellowship helped me to develop a detailed understanding of how to enter, rather than simply follow, mainstream media conversations,” Shankar said. “It has pushed me to think about what my scholarly research can contribute on a broader scale, and how to deliver it in ways that can reach a wider audience.”

Twenty faculty are selected as Public Voices Fellows each year, bringing the total to 60 Northwestern faculty who have participated in the program since its inception in 2012, and the Office of the Provost is eager to continue the high-impact program. 

“Northwestern has experts on topics of great importance to the world at large, such as health care reform, global warming, incarceration, drug policies, diversity and race relations,” said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, associate provost for faculty at Northwestern. “As Public Voices Fellows, Northwestern faculty, especially women and those of color, make an important contribution to the public discourse about key topics of our time. In turn, faculty benefit from becoming public intellectuals, as their research programs are sharpened and expanded, and new opportunities open up for them.”

Applications for the 2015 Program are now being accepted until July 31, 2015. The application can be accessed here.

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