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A Feast of Ideas, Open to All

Elmhurst College’s Spring Term had barely begun, and already Amy Krukowski’s calendar was filling up with reasons to come to campus. Krukowski, an Elmhurst resident, is a fan of the College’s public lecture series, and she had penciled in, among all her work obligations and family gatherings, a list of visiting speakers that she just had to see: the legendary Washington journalist Bob Woodward, political scientist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), editor Wendy Wolf (Malcolm X) and New Yorker writer Louis Menand.

“I love hearing intelligent, articulate people talk about ideas,” Krukowski said. “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.”

For Krukowski and an ever-growing number of people around the Chicago area, Elmhurst has become a destination for mind-opening discourse, the place to go to hear big thinkers talk about big ideas. Each year, thousands come to campus to hear some of the world’s most provocative, profound and inspiring speakers. In the last academic year alone, Elmhurst welcomed the renowned scholar of religion Martin Marty and the crusading columnist Dan Savage; best-selling medical historian Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin; Catholic media evangelist Father Robert Barron and U.S. Senator Mark Kirk.

This diverse and ambitious roster of speakers is the result of the College’s ongoing effort to enhance the intellectual and cultural life of the campus—and to reach out to the region beyond.

“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 neighbors have indeed joined in.

Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, who has spoken at Elmhurst twice in the past 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.”

“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.”

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 in downtown Chicago, which boasts 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 College’s various 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 Elmhurst College 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.

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, they often deal with current events, and there is 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, Class of 1936, an aerospace engineer who performed design work on the original space shuttle. At about the same time, the College created still more 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 be explored on campus 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 launched 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 in honor of the Reverend Dr. William R. Johnson ’68, the first openly gay person in modern history to be ordained 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 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 about his book, 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.” Looking to extend its students’ contact with Gutiérrez’s message beyond that one event, the College created the Poverty Project, a yearlong examination of “the everyday scandal of material poverty.” The project included speakers and other cultural events, and highlighted ongoing campus-led efforts to confront and alleviate poverty.

Such annual themes became a staple of campus discourse.

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 Elmhurst graduation 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, which brought an impressive roster of scholars and writers to campus to discuss the relevance of Niebuhr’s message for the 21st century. New York Times columnist David Brooks delivered the keynote address, speaking about politics and the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. Overflow crowds packed campus venues both for Brooks’s lecture and for a panel discussion on the persistence of evil.

“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.”

Best of all, for Amy Krukowski and others, the College’s lectures make a world of ideas more accessible. A former Chicagoan, Krukowski thought she had given up cultural events—plays, lectures, concerts—when she moved to the suburbs to raise a family. But at Elmhurst, she finds a feast of ideas, close to home.

“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 [Chicago] Humanities Festival.”

Encouraging lifelong learners
With government in gridlock, rampant cynicism about politics and a presidential election campaign gathering steam, the natural theme for the 2011–2012 academic year was democracy and civic engagement. The Democracy Forum brought speakers such as journalist and author Jon Meacham and author and political consultant Naomi Wolf to campus.

Their visits offer richer educational opportunities for Elmhurst students, too; many speakers not only give lectures, but also meet and talk beforehand with students and faculty. When 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 College’s Urban Studies Program. “These opportunities have stimulated deeper conversations, which have resulted in enhanced critical thinking and analysis.”

Some faculty members have incorporated lecture series themes 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. Based on faculty suggestions, President Ray recently announced that the 2012–2013 theme will be Science, Technology and Society. Fall lectures in this theme include “Giving Women the Access Code,” by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, and “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy F. Baumeister. The theme the following year 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 still want 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 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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