A Feast of Ideas, Close to Home

February 7, 2012 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

In the minutes before one of Elmhurst College’s cultural lectures is about to begin, the vibe in the room is always the same, whether the venue is the stately Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel or the bright and inviting Founders Lounge in the Frick Center.

The murmur throughout is lively and warm, punctuated with laughter. From their seats, members of the audience seek out friends or faces they might recognize, and look around to see all of the people who share their eagerness to hear the evening’s speaker. Were they, too, floored by his latest book? Do they religiously read her provocative columns? Did they experience a change of heart because of something he convincingly argued?

Amy Krukowski is likely to be in the crowd, quietly enjoying the anticipation. Though her life is filled with the demands of work and family, she makes time, as she has ever since she herself was a college student, to attend public lectures on vital issues of the day.

“I love hearing intelligent, articulate people talk about ideas, and share what they’ve been thinking about,” she says. “I think everybody needs that intellectual time-out, that time to hear other ideas, and just to be with other people who are interested in the same thing.”

With the spring cultural season at Elmhurst getting underway, Krukowski already has decided which lecturers she most wants to see: Wendy Wolf, who edited the revealing and controversial new biography of Malcolm X; acclaimed author and political scientist Robert Putnam, whom Krukowski last saw at the Chicago Humanities Festival; New Yorker staff writer and Harvard professor Louis Menand; and renowned journalist Bob Woodward.

She relishes the fact that she can attend so many events featuring well-known speakers, for free, and at a locale only five minutes from her south Elmhurst home.

Joel Chrastka and his wife, Betty, have never been to Elmhurst College, but hope to become regular visitors when they come to lectures by best-selling authors Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2010) and Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts, 2011); and Chicago priest and media figure Father Robert Barron, whose 10-part series, Catholicism, they watched on PBS.

The drive to Elmhurst from their home in Berwyn will be a snap compared with the driving and parking hassles of Chicago. For the Mukherjee lecture, they’ll be bringing their neighbor, an endocrinologist eager to attend but in need of a ride.

“Elmhurst College is offering things we just don’t see elsewhere in the community, and when we found out the lectures were free, we were delighted,” says Chrastka, a retired businessman.

A real destination for cultural programs
Over the next few months, the College will welcome thousands of people from the campus community, the western suburbs and the greater Chicago area when they come to hear not only the speakers mentioned by Krukowski and the Chrastkas but several others, including Fox News analyst KT McFarland, who will address Democracy and Global Security; author and columnist Dan Savage, who will talk about his powerful It Gets Better video project; and internationally known scholar and University of Chicago Divinity School professor Martin Marty, who will give a centennial appreciation of theologian, Elmhurst alumnus and former College President H. Richard Niebuhr.

Several of the lectures are part of The Democracy Forum, this year’s themed lecture series, or the new Science Talks series. Others are the latest contributions to the College’s well-established religious and intercultural lectures. Together, this ambitious roster represents the culmination of efforts over several years to enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the College. At the same time, the lectures have become a distinctive and especially fitting way for Elmhurst College to serve and contribute to the common good.

“The lectures are one way that the College engages the world,” says James Winters, vice president for communications and public affairs. “This is where we really open our doors to the larger community. We welcome our neighbors to join the conversation.”

The College’s efforts have garnered excitement and attention, not only from area residents but also from civic and political leaders.

“I’m so impressed with what’s going on at Elmhurst College,” says Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who lives in nearby Riverside. “It’s becoming a real destination for cultural programs in the Chicago area.”

Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, who has spoken at Elmhurst twice in the last two years, observed that the College “has emerged as a leader among Illinois colleges for its determined focus on civic engagement and service to the community.”

Larry Braskamp, an Elmhurst College trustee and professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, has heard compliments from colleagues at Loyola, as well as from fellow worshippers at Fourth Presbyterian Church, the downtown Chicago church with one of the city’s most prominent congregations.

“They tell me they’re amazed by the range of speakers; that it’s just phenomenal, what the College is doing,” he says, adding, “This is one of the best intentional ways for Elmhurst College to be an even better neighbor to all of the western suburbs. It’s just really impressive.”

To add a wider range of voices
It took time, and no small amount of research and development, for the lecture series to come into their own. For many years, Elmhurst’s main claim to fame was its music offerings, in particular the internationally acclaimed Elmhurst College Jazz Festival, which is about to enter its 45th year; and Summer Extravaganza, which brings thousands to the Mall each June to hear the College’s Jazz Band and such headliners as Dee Dee Bridgewater and Bobby Floyd.

Public lectures started to become better established in the 1980s, most notably when the Dr. Rudolf  G. Schade Endowed Lecture Fund was created in 1984 as a lasting tribute by Elmhurst alumni to Schade, the longtime, revered professor of history, Greek and philosophy who first came to Elmhurst at the urging of his professor, alumnus and renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

The Schade lectures, whose topics pertain to history, law or ethics, always have been popular, though initially that may have been due largely to Dr. Schade: He always attended the lectures, and his former students flocked there to see him, recalls his son, Rudy, a Chicago attorney and Elmhurst College trustee.

“After his death, it became much more about the quality of the lectures,” he says. “Generally, we’ve always had very interesting people and very interesting subjects. They are relevant, often deal with current events, and there’s a lot to them. People are looking for relevance, variety, and a way to learn something. I think we’ve done a very good job of offering that.”

In 1996, a significant endowed lecture fund was established by Roland Quest, Elmhurst Class of 1936, an aerospace engineer who performed design work on the original space shuttle. At about the same time, the College created additional new lecture series that aimed to deepen the intellectual life of the campus.

Three annual talks had religious themes—a Catholic lecture, named for Joseph Cardinal Bernardin; a Jewish lecture, named for philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel; and a Muslim lecture, named for 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. The religious lectures, especially the Heschel and the al-Ghazali, allow those faith traditions to have a presence on campus that can be explored in a way that transcends generalities.

For example, “even without a body of Jewish students here, through the Heschel lecture we still can think and talk about Jewish life beyond the Holocaust,” says Chaplain H. Scott Matheney, who started the series. “The lectures let us talk about the joy, the historical integrity, the intellectual life, the worship life, of the faith.”

Other new lecture series addressed themes of race, gender and ethnicity, and have brought such luminaries to campus as poets Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks, each of whom spoke as part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Guestship. More recently, an LGBT guestship joined the intercultural lectures; last November it was named the William R. Johnson Guestship in honor of the Reverend Dr. William R. Johnson ’68, the first openly gay person in modern history to gain ordination to the mainstream Christian ministry. (He was ordained in 1972 by the United Church of Christ, the College’s affiliated denomination.)

“The main purpose of the intercultural lectures is to add a wider range of voices to the vibrant conversation that Elmhurst College is daily carrying on about intercultural issues,” says Dr. Russell Ford, an associate professor of philosophy at the College and coordinator of the Campus Guestship Program. “The lecture series are occasions for us to invite a new voice, and often a very prominent voice, into our dialogue with the aim of engaging them directly with our questions and observations, and adding theirs to our continued reflections.”

Amplifying the impact
Building on those established lectures, the College began to look outward. In 2003, Elmhurst undertook a more focused effort to attract larger audiences by bringing in high-profile speakers in the fall and spring, and by promoting the events more widely and strategically. The effort was an immediate success, judging by the huge turnout for a Schade lecture with historian and author Robert Dallek, who spoke on An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 shortly before the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. The Chicago Tribune wrote a full-page editorial about the anniversary, and noted the lecture at Elmhurst.

“It was clear then that we had begun to join the cultural conversation on these types of topics,” Winters says. “With the Dallek lecture, we saw that our new approach would really work, and we understood the potential for lectures to provide a service, not just to the campus but also to the larger community.”

The most dramatic changes began after 2008, when Dr. S. Alan Ray took office as the 13th president of Elmhurst and led the College on a course to develop the most comprehensive Strategic Plan in its history. One of the plan’s goals was to achieve a higher level of service “to students and society” by enriching the public intellectual and cultural life of the campus.

By this time, the College already had established a strong record of offering well-known speakers and bringing in significant audiences to enjoy them. What seemed to be needed was a way to develop and coordinate the programming in a more intentional way.

The idea of concentrating cultural events under an annual theme emerged in 2009, when the College awarded its highest honor, the Niebuhr Medal, to Roman Catholic priest and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, a champion for the “poorest of the poor.” The Poverty Project grew out of an effort to extend the meaning of Gutiérrez’s message beyond that one event. As a yearlong look at “the everyday scandal of material poverty,” the Poverty Project included speakers and other cultural events, and highlighted ongoing campus-led efforts to confront and alleviate poverty.

The theme idea works well, Winters says, because it “brings a coherence that amplifies the impact of all of the lectures and other cultural offerings, and serves the community in a more effective and powerful way.”

It also offers a framework in which to introduce topics that not only would fit the theme but also would illuminate the College’s core values, especially its commitment to social justice and inclusiveness, intellectual excellence, and the exploration of faith, meaning and values.

The following year, President Ray selected interfaith engagement as the subject of the yearlong theme. Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith examined the issues that unite and divide people of faith. Still Speaking also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the graduation from Elmhurst of Reinhold Niebuhr (1910) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1912). The series took its name from a motto of the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.”

The opening event was the Inaugural Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life, where nationally known scholars and public intellectuals in such fields as education, ethics, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religious studies, science and theology would talk about issues pertaining to the impact of religion and religious discourse on the common good.

The Forum was held in two parts: an afternoon panel presentation, during which a group of distinguished scholars discussed “The Persistence of Evil: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Message for Today’s World,” followed by the evening keynote address, given by New York Times columnist David Brooks, on “Politics and the Influence of Reinhold Niebuhr.”

No one was quite sure what kind of attendance to expect at the events, especially the panel discussion. Judging by the topic and time of day, “the afternoon event was the kind that one could easily expect to be sparsely attended,” Winters recalls. But a capacity crowd of 400 people packed the Founders Lounge, and that evening about 1,000 came to hear Brooks, filling the main floor and balcony of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel.

“I was impressed by how hungry people were for serious talk about religion,” President Ray recalls. “Not everyone agreed with everything that was said. But people avidly joined in because they believe these are important topics.”

The huge turnout at the Niebuhr Forum decisively demonstrated the existence of a significant audience and appetite for a venue where complicated issues could be discussed in serious but accessible ways.

Local residents like Krukowski would happily affirm that. When she was first married and living in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in the 1990s, she and her husband regularly went to plays in storefront theaters and at Steppenwolf, frequented Facets Multimedia and the Music Box, and practically lived at the annual Chicago Humanities Festival, sometimes going “hard core” and taking in six or seven events.

They moved to Elmhurst with their toddler in 2003, “for schools and space,” and trips to the city eventually started to wane—but not their cultural interest.

“I would’ve been willing to drive a couple of hours to see people like Robert Putnam,” says Krukowski, an English teacher at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. “So I find it really exciting now to be able to step out of my house and then, a few minutes later, to hear these great authors, the same people who are at the Humanities Festival.”

With gridlock in government, rampant cynicism about government, and a presidential election gathering steam, the natural theme for this academic year was democracy and civic engagement. The Democracy Forum, whose lectures bring to life the crucial role of civic engagement in a successful democracy, so far has hosted such speakers as journalist and author Jon Meacham, CNN analyst and author Jeffrey Toobin, and U.S. Senator Mark Kirk.

Encouraging lifelong learners
Their visits offer richer educational opportunities for Elmhurst students, as many speakers not only give lectures, but also meet and talk beforehand with students and faculty. When author and political consultant Naomi Wolf came to campus last October, she screened and discussed her documentary, “The End of America,” and held a workshop for students on how to make Democracy work before giving her public lecture, “Citizen Empowerment 101.”

“The opportunities to meet in small groups with a speaker, or even have a speaker visit a class, have enabled students to engage in discussion and debate on a broad range of issues,” says Connie Mixon, director of the Urban Studies Program. “These opportunities have stimulated deeper conversations, which have resulted in enhanced critical thinking and analysis.”

Some faculty members have incorporated the theme into their coursework. During the Poverty Project year, Dr. Mary Kay Mulvaney, director of the Honors Program, led a course that viewed poverty through several disciplinary lenses: theology, education, political science, health care, geography, biology and literature/film.

And then there is the benefit to students of simply attending the lectures. Mulvaney has required it in some of her classes. “I think it’s important, as part of a whole liberal arts education, that students engage with topics of current public interest or historical significance,” she says. “The lectures are a great way of extending their classroom experience, even if it doesn’t relate directly to the topic of the course.”

As part of an effort to better engage students and develop more academic opportunities in conjunction with the lecture series, faculty members have become more involved in the selection of themes and speakers. Last fall, staff members from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs met with more than 40 members of the faculty to talk about ideas and gather suggestions. Based on those suggestions, President Ray recently announced that the theme for the 2012-13 academic year will be Science, Technology and Society, and that the theme in 2013-14 will be The Future of Education.

“I hope that as a result of our lecture series, Elmhurst College will not simply become better known, but our faculty and students will be moved to think and act in new and collaborative ways,” he says. “We are, after all, a place of learning and research. Our various lecture series are first and foremost offered in the service of that fundamental mission.”

Mulvaney believes that, in the longer term, helping her students to develop an appreciation for cultural lectures will start them down the road to becoming lifelong learners. “When students go, they see community members who are there because they want to be there, because they’re interested and are still wanting to find out new things,” she says. “Hopefully when these students leave college, they’ll be more engaged citizens and want to keep attending these kinds of events. To me, that’s what lifelong learning is all about—staying intellectually engaged.”

And culturally aware and informed. Today’s more polarized political and ideological environment makes it is especially important that colleges like Elmhurst “take an active role in providing a stage for thoughtful voices from all sides of charged social issues,” adds President Ray. “I believe those attending our events want to understand better the complexity of that world and learn how some people—our speakers—are making a positive difference. It is my hope that, as a result of these lectures, some in our audience may be moved to engage the world in a new way and make their own contributions to the common good.”

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