Here at the Pope Center, we keep track of public lectures and panel discussions at North Carolina colleges and universities, primarily by monitoring the lectures posted on university websites. In this article, I review the highlights of the past semester (from January through May 2011).
On the positive side, we found significant interest in private-sector innovation, especially entrepreneurship, and also lectures on legitimate social ills. On the not-so-positive side, we found many events centered on trendy themes of dubious academic or societal merit. These included government-funded “innovation,” everything “green,” the oppression of ostensibly victimized groups, globalization, sex, and whichever way lecturers could think to mix and match them (see, for example, “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” a lecture given at Davidson College).
Here are my observations on the lectures.
On Bill O’Reilly’s cable news show a few years ago, the Reverend Al Sharpton described racism and the lingering effects of it as a poison. The thing to do, he said, was to “suck out” the poison by decrying the faintest whiff of real or perceived racist activity to whoever will listen.
Many academics appear to be following Sharpton’s example. In fact, so much “poison” is being “sucked out” by so many people that it seems to have made a great big poisonous mess. Blacks, women, Muslims, and homosexuals all advertise their oppression as conspicuously as possible at universities today, or at least that would seem to be the case in the choice of on-campus speakers.
Many groups have clearly legitimate grievances. Public lectures commemorating the civil rights struggle, such as “The Price of Education in Little Rock” at North Carolina State on February 24, are as worthy of attention as any other historical lectures. So are lectures on opposing violence against women, as in the April 13 lecture at Elon, “Vocalizing Modern Sex Slavery.”
However, some oppression-themed events on our list stretched credulity. Far from raising awareness for a cause, they call into question the seriousness of the difficulties faced by supposedly oppressed groups. For instance, it is hard to imagine that the organizers of the April 15 “Day of Silence & Bar-B-Queer” at Elon were really very persecuted.
Along the same lines was a March 1 talk at Elon titled “A Fire in My Belly and Other So-Called Dirty Work in the Art of David Wojnarowicz.” The lecturer, Mysoon Rizk, bemoaned the “censorship” of a work that portrayed Christ with fire ants crawling out of his abdomen. The work was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery last year but taken down when legislators got upset that taxpayer dollars were being used to fund the exhibit. The first amendment, at least under our interpretation, does not imply that everyone who is so inclined must be supplied with taxpayer dollars to produce and display vulgar or blasphemous speech.
Another credulity-stretching tale of oppression occurred at the March 16 lecture by “Ground Zero Mosque” imam. Feisal Abdul Rauf described the hardships he faced in trying to build a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan. At the same time that Muslim officials in American-occupied Afghanistan are imprisoning people for the crime of converting from Islam, Rauf painted Islam as a shining example of a religion that embraces religious pluralism.
As with “Oppression” lectures, innovation-themed events fell into two categories—legitimate and dubious. Some lectures were given by individuals with ample credentials for giving advice. One of these was entrepreneur Louis Foreman on April 27. Foreman is the CEO of Edison Nation, a company that helps inventors bring their products to market. Presented by NC State’s Springboard innovation resource center and sponsored by a local patent law firm, the presentation was uplifting (in an Amway, rah-rah kind of way), moderately informative, and it provided a good forum for meeting entrepreneurship-minded people.
Other notable lectures in this category included “How to Lose Your Innovation in 10 Easy Steps” by patent attorney Michael Meehan and a lecture by Brent Callinicos, vice president and treasurer of Google, Inc., called “An Innovation Culture.” Both were given at UNC-Chapel Hill in March.
The second category consisted of lectures calling for the government to encourage innovation. At a panel discussion at Duke in January titled “Hitting the Reset Button on Energy Policy,” for example, scholars from the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and Breakthrough Institute asked for $25 billion in federal funds to “accelerate energy innovation.” The idea that new technology can be legislated into existence is foolhardy. As when Jimmy Carter poured billions into “synfuels,” it’s likely that lots of money will be wasted and lots of talent pulled out of the private sector, with little benefit to society.
Other “innovation” efforts calling for government assistance were even more direct. For example, an April 13 panel discussion at UNC-Chapel Hill called “Stories of Progress: New Media to Highlight Global Issues” promoted “public-private partnerships for global health.” Helping the world’s poor and sick is great, but government intervention is inescapably susceptible to inefficiency and corruption.
Being green may not be easy, as Kermit the Frog tells us, but it is certainly popular at North Carolina universities these days.
I have no objection to trying to save the earth, but any action by the government to try to change the climate should be carefully considered. Prudence, Edmund Burke instructs, is the first virtue of a statesman. Unfortunately, magical thinking, free of any attempt at reconciling hard choices, abounds in the environmentalist movement. This seems particularly evident in the odd mixing of “green” efforts with social justice and feminism. Here’s a sampling of “green” events:
Feb 24 at Appalachian State: “It Has to be Climate Sustainability: Let the Debate Begin!” a lecture by Uchita de Zoysa, a “leader in advocating for social and economic justice and urgent action to address the causes of climate change.”
Feb 28 at Appalachian State: “Really Inconvenient Truths: Gender Climate Change and the Environment,” given by Joni Seager, “an early pioneer in bringing feminist perspectives to bear on global environmental policy and analysis.”
March 1 at Wake Forest: “The Greening of Feminism.” Sponsored by the School of Divinity, four experts explored “ecological theology.”
March 10 at Elon: “Sustainability and the Global Food Crisis.” Self-described “eco feminist” Vandana Shiva discussed the efforts of her organization Navdanya, “a women-centered network providing support and training in sustainable practices, organic farming and fair trade across 16 states in India.”
The world is flat, says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, meaning that global economic competition and/or cooperation is the current state of the world. Many universities enthusiastically agree. Their enthusiasm, though, evidenced by the ubiquity of the word “global,” can be good, bad, or just so much bluster. At a March 14 lecture at UNC-Chapel Hill, Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco had some fun at the expense of his university’s commitment to producing citizens ready to participate in the “global community.” “I’m not sure what [it] means but I’m pretty sure they don’t,” he jested.
In any case, many North Carolina universities have embraced the mission to “change the world,” whether they understand it or not. Here are a few events with an international focus:
March 5 at ECU: “Global Governance.” Nancy Spalding of East Carolina’ University’s political science department spoke on “balancing national needs with a commitment to building a durable international order.”
March 18 at UNC-Chapel Hill: “Water for Life with Jamie Bartram.” Bartram is the director of the Water Insitute at UNC, “which brings together individuals and institutions from diverse disciplines and sectors and empower [sic] them to work together to solve the most critical global issues in water and health.” The talk was part of the Global Health Discussion Series.
March 23 at UNC-Chapel Hill: “Ambassador from the African Union to the USA.”
April 14 UNC-Chapel Hill: “Leveraging Public-Private Partnerships for Global Health.” Representatives from Pampers and Procter & Gamble discussed “how private businesses are managing successful global health campaigns.”
Few subjects receive as much attention on the lecture circuit as sex. Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive sampling of sex-related events:
February 14 at Davidson: “The Sexual Politics of Meat.” During the speech, Carol J. Adams explored “the relationship between patriarchal values and meat eating by interweaving the insights of feminism, vegetarianism, animal defense, and literary theory.”
February 18 at Appalachian State: “Textual and Sexual Sameness.” Stephen Guy-Bray spoke on “sameness and difference as templates for doing historical and literary scholarship.”
March 29 at Duke: “Profiles in Sexuality Research with Rosalind S. Chou.” Chou’s lecture is part of a series intended to “introduce students to the many ways that Duke faculty study LGBT issues and sexuality.”
April 14 at Elon: “Bursting the Heteronormative Bubble Discussion Group.” Participants discussed “the silence faced by some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, as well as straight allies, as a result of harassment, prejudice, and discrimination.”
April 20 at UNC-Chapel Hill: “Sex(ism), Identity and Intimacy in a Pornographic Culture.” Speaker Gail Dines used “examples from pornography, magazines, television shows, and movies to explore how masculinity and femininity are shaped by a consumer-driven image-based culture.”
This brief survey of public lectures at universities in North Carolina is not a complete picture of all the public lectures in the state. Not all events made it onto the college website calendars. For instance, my former colleagues at Carolina Review hosted National Review editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg in April, but his lecture didn’t make UNC-Chapel Hill’s website.
Still, the events presented here do give a sense of what’s “hot” at the cutting edge of academic scholarship and academic interests. What’s “hot” appears to include excessive fear of oppression, praise of government intervention, promotion of magical thinking about the environment, and all manner of sex. Those academic directions give a sense of why the Pope Center is important: Someone has to keep an eye on what is happening to higher education.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to our former intern Ashley Russell for collecting the events throughout the semester.