April 21, 2024

Op-eds and the Buddy System

If you’re like me, you think of opinion pieces as being the views of one person. Not necessarily, though.

My analysis of 214 op-eds by college and university presidents from the first six months of 2014 turned up a surprising number of joint ventures – a total of 20, or nearly 10 percent of the op-eds examined. Here are some examples:

While falling outside the six months of op-eds I examined, the highest-profile joint effort so far this year is a Huffington Post opinion piece posted September 23 by the presidents of Harvard and Stanford addressing “What Universities Can Do About Climate Change.”

In addition, a number of college presidents draw upon – and give co-billing to – members of their staff.

What are some of the upsides of crafting a joint opinion piece?

  • It underlines the ability of colleges and universities to work cooperatively. A common charge by pundits and policy makers is that our institutions are preoccupied with self-interest. Multiple presidents making a case jointly in an op-ed is powerful evidence otherwise.
  • It strengthens the case being made. Two or more voices saying the same thing makes the argument all that much more believable.
  • It doubles your secondary-audience possibilities. Beyond the initial publication or posting, having your op-ed posted on two college websites, for example, is a major plus for visibility.
  • It allows influentials outside of higher education to affirm the opinions offered. A university president’s piece in the Boston Globe on reducing climate risks to coastal communities was made all the stronger in being co-authored by a respected former U.S. senator.
  • Involving a staff member deepens authority and commitment. In showing how far the University of South Carolina had come since its desegregation 50 years earlier, the president involved USC’s chief diversity officer, underlining the university’s credibility and commitment.

Are there downsides? Possibly. By having to share the spotlight, you can’t be as blatantly self-aggrandizing. However, I ultimately consider that a plus since an overly-promotional tone is a real turn-off to readers. You still can make your institution’s case, but just a bit more subtly. (See the Harvard-Stanford piece cited above for a good example of subtlety in making institution-specific points.)

Another hurdle is having to get agreement and sign-off by two or more institutions’ leadership, not just one, and then there’s the danger of having to avoid strong statements to appease the most nervous folks on those campuses.

Still, united voices do have an appeal that well may make the extra effort worthwhile.

Here’s a list of all 20 jointly-written op-eds from January through June, with links to each.

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