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Melissa Harris-Perry show at MSNBC breaks more than gender, race barrier

Melissa Harris-Perry is the first African American woman to solo-host a news and politics show on a major television outlet, MSNBC. But she also breaks a pundit barrier. As a professor at Tulane University, she raises academia to a new level where it can enrich public discourse.

By Courtney E. Martin / February 24, 2012

Melissa Harris-Perry debuted her own show on MSNBC last weekend. Also a professor at Tulane University, she's bringing academia out of the ivory tower. For instance, she preceded a discussion about recent birth-control hearings with a short “lecture” on the history of regulating the body and its relationship to privacy in US history.

PHOTO: MSNBC

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While watching Melissa Harris-Perry debut her own show on MSNBC last weekend, I found myself reacting with a sort of battered awe: A woman of color, hosting a serious show on a serious cable-news channel? Another glass ceiling, shattered.

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Ms. Harris-Perry is the first African American woman to ever solo-host a news and politics show on a major television outlet. But here’s another eureka coup: She’s a tenured professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Her professorial credential is beyond unusual for a TV show host. It adds a welcome intellectual quality to a more diverse public conversation. In fact, her website advertises that – in addition to her show on Saturday and Sunday mornings – she will be teaching “Intro to African American Studies” and “America’s First Ladies” at Tulane this spring.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute, women make up less than 20 percent of tenured faculty at America’s colleges and universities. Women of color comprise only a miniscule 2.8 percent of tenured faculty.

Further, academic women on the whole are three times less likely to be a part of forums that constitute contemporary public debate, like op-ed pages at major online and print publications.

Katie Orenstein, founder of The Op-Ed Project, which aims to diversify public discourse, puts these numbers in context: “Academic institutions incubate knowledge – knowledge that has the power to change the world.”

In other words, professors’ express purpose, outside of educating the next generation to think critically and gain skills for being productive professionals and citizens, should be to harvest world-changing ideas.

It follows that the lack of diversity among professors is a problem, not just within the hallowed halls of higher education, but far beyond them. And when only 2.8 percent of a demographic that constitutes at least a quarter of Americans have the career security to think big thoughts, that’s an even bigger problem.

In part, this emerges from the kind of institutional and interpersonal sexism and racism that can be found in any sector.

But it also results from the structure and expectations of academe itself. “Publish or perish” is still the dominant thinking among professor-hopefuls – making highly specialized academic journals the only safe outlets for their labored-over research, insights, and original thoughts. [Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Harris-Perry was denied tenure at Princeton University. She was not.]

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