Opinion

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.

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.]

Indeed, Harris-Perry told Jennifer Pozner, founder of Women in Media & News: “I am completely clear that hosting a television show will not win me any professorial points. One of my Twitter followers wrote ‘expect side eye in faculty club.’ ”

The threat of tattered collegiality, however, hasn’t stopped this professor pundit; before her new show, she co-hosted MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, gave high-profile public speeches all over the country, and gained a healthy Twitter following – now nearly 70,000 strong.

Harris-Perry is an anomaly. After a decade of academic hazing, even tenured professors often find it difficult to stick their necks out into the wider world of public debate. Traumatized by years of policing from all-powerful advisers, they end up policing their own written and oral communication. This process, made more painful by sexism and racism, causes many a brilliant professor to shrink from opportunities that might make them vulnerable to scrutiny.

In part, their reluctance is understandable at a time when too much of public debate is built on the shaky foundation of sound bites and shouting. And yet, it’s a case of chicken or egg with huge civic significance. If thoughtful, studied people don’t enter the fray, the quality and tenor of public debate won’t change.

That’s why watching Harris-Perry last weekend was so satisfying. In a lead-in to discuss recent birth-control hearings last week, she did a short “lecture” on the history of regulating the body and its relationship to privacy in US history.

She waxed poetic: “In the 17th century conditions of colonial America, it is likely that nearly 40 percent of infants died before their first birthdays. A nascent country in need of people to populate their frontier quickly began to see pregnant bodies as a public matter.”

Imagine most of the cable-news hosts setting the stage for a cantankerous debate with context like that. You can’t, because they wouldn’t, and herein lies the import of having public intellectuals like Harris-Perry taking over their rightful share of our airwaves.

The fruits of America’s institutions of higher learning need to ripen under the light of the real-world stage. It will make this country’s public debate more complex and contextualized, its policies more effective, and its citizens smarter.  

Courtney E. Martin is leading The Op-Ed Project’s Public Voices Fellowship Program at Princeton, which aims to get more women and people of color to enter public debate. You can read more about her work at courtneyemartin.com.

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