The policy wonk as editorialist

Mark Alan Hughes

Photo by Mark Stehle

Mark Alan Hughes Gr’86 has an opinion about most things that happen in Philadelphia.

As a distinguished senior fellow at Penn’s Robert A. Fox Leadership Program and professor of policy development and urban issues at the Fels Center of Government, Hughes is able to back up his opinion with scholarly expertise.

As a weekly op-ed columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News, Hughes is able to take his ideas about the practical application of theories and offer concrete solutions—and criticisms—on the page.

His audience is different than the people to whom he is exposed at Penn.

And Hughes likes that.

“It’s turned out to be as great a professional experience as I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s a lot like what is my favorite part of being an academic, which is teaching.”

Hughes enjoyed sending in guest op-eds to the Inquirer and Washington Post since his days as an assistant professor at Princeton, but never expected he would get his own column.

Four years ago this December, Hughes got a call from longtime Daily News columnist Russell Byers to discuss a policy report of Hughes’ that had crossed his desk. It was the first time they had spoken directly, and Hughes remembers the conversation as a great one.

That weekend, however, Byers was killed.

This act was a great blow to the city and the paper, said Hughes. In his anguished editorial, editor Zach Stalberg recalled noticing Hughes’ policy report on Byers’ desk, an indication that he was working until the end.

A few months later, Hughes was approached by the Daily News op-ed editor and eagerly accepted his offer to write exclusively for that paper.

“As a complete novice, wow!” said Hughes with a laugh. “It sounded ‘His Girl Friday’-ish!”

When Hughes began writing his column, he drew heavily on his work at Penn for topics.

Now that he has a couple of years under his belt, he said it’s more of a “two-way street,” as he brings topics he addresses his column back into his classroom.

It sometimes surprises Hughes what generates responses from readers. Issues marked as “controversial” sometimes generate few letters, while innocuous topics can result in an outpouring of mail.

“In general, I get lots of e-mail traffic,” he said. “I answer every one.”

At the beginning, Hughes wrote columns a couple of times a month. Hughes now appears every Tuesday because he didn’t want to be accused of not being able to sustain the quick weekly pace, he said with a laugh.

Hughes has been teaching at Penn for five years, having been lured to Fels by his good friend and colleague, Fox Leadership Professor John DiIulio C’80. It was, however, 20 years ago in September that he first came here for graduate school.

This story, too, is one of coincidence.

In his grad school search, Hughes initially sent in his application to Penn’s city planning program.

“In the mailroom, my application was misplaced and put in the box of the regional science department,” he said with a laugh. “One thing led to the next. I ended up going to the regional science department and everything that has happened since is because of that act of complete serendipity.”

To read past columns, visit Hughes’ columns appear in the Daily News every Tuesday.

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Originally published on October 2, 2003