Professors and the student press

By Phoebe Maltz

Professors who write letters and op-eds in student papers are assets to them for the same reason that their presence poses a problem. Professors writing for student press often have valuable inputs that are useful in getting more ideas out and thus should under no circumstances be banned from student press. However, when a professor writes an opinion piece for a student newspaper, he should be aware that his words carry more weight than those of students. A professor’s opinion is recognized by many, if not as truth, than at least as the official intelligent, intellectual, or academic opinion on an issue. It is naïve to think that people ignore the byline of opinion articles; the byline itself can be a large part of the article’s power to persuade.

For most college students, the only venue for getting opinions out to a large number of people is the student press. Professors, on the other hand, have a variety of venues to express opinions to a large audience such as lectures, books, and articles in academic or popular journals, and do not require student press for their opinions to be heard. Rarely can an individual student summon hundreds of audience members for a speech he wishes to give on his views on various issues that concern him. Well-established professors can do so more easily. Thus when a professor chooses to write for student press, it is a calculated decision in a way it never could be for a student. That this decision is calculated does not make it by necessity an immoral one. However, professors’ prestige and frequently superior writing ability allow their opinions to overshadow those of student staff and contributors.

Professors do and should have more power than students at the University. They have done the work to demonstrate the skill required to be where they are. For most students, the ratio of time spent in class to time spent reading student press makes clear whose words will, and should, be heard the most. Student press is a venue for students to prepare to enter a world in which our opinions matter. Student press is a venue for students to shed humility and speak without worrying that they are not important or old enough to do so.

An analogy can be made to a graduate student in the humanities taking a Hum class primarily made up of first- and second-years in the College. If the subject, professor, or time slot of that particular class interests him, by all means he should take the class, but he should not take it for a grade if the class is curved. Doing so would be unfair to the students taking the class just after finishing high school, the students for whom the class was designed. A professor may contribute an opinion piece to student press, and will likely contribute much to the paper in ways that an individual student might not. Yet a professor writing for student press ought to keep in mind that too much contribution could be detrimental to the students for whom the venue primarily exists.

When a professor chooses to write on an issue, ideally he will shed light on that issue, rather than take a stance. Professors’ aforementioned superior knowledge and writing ability allow them to use student press as, in a sense, an extension of the classroom, a place to inform and to promote understanding over ignorance. However, if a professor definitively takes a side on a much-debated issue in a student paper, he devalues those of students on the other side by virtue of his power. Students who write on one side of a controversial issue are virtually guaranteed student articles from the other side in future op-ed sections; professors do not necessarily expect other professors to represent the other side. A student is not always capable of contradicting a professor’s opinion–if the professor is grading him, he may feel uncomfortable doing so. Also, even if a student is not taking a class from the professor in question, he may sense that his own take on an issue will be ignored by the University community once a professor has espoused a contradictory opinion in the same newspaper.

In the opinion sections of student press, a balance must be struck so that all voices may be heard. Professors should use their positions to provide the University community with ideas to consider when looking at controversial issues, but they ought to keep in mind the power of their opinions when expressing them in a student newspaper.