The President’s Lecture Series: A Reflection

In 1987, President James Koch asked me to coor- dinate what he hoped would become a year-long lecture series at UM. It would be called the President’s Lecture Series with funding from his office. I had instructions from him to invite for the 1987-1988 academic year eight or ten important speakers representing the humanities, arts, and sciences. We thought that each speaker should give two presentations, a professionally pitched afternoon research seminar for faculty and students, and a town-gown evening lecture.

President's Lecture Series

I chose for the logo of the series Raphael’s School of Athens, an iconic fresco of the Italian Renaissance celebrating the life of the mind. To continue that celebration in our own time and place seemed to me a worthy aim for the series. This choice did not inspire universal approbation. I learned from one perturbed critic that Raphael’s alleged masterpiece should be disqualified as our logo because not one female figure could be seen in it. This assertion seemed to me to emanate from an excessively severe school of art criticism. I gained, however, from that exchange of views about Raphael an immediate understanding of the potential for con- troversy in my work as the coordinator of the lecture series.

We have had plenty of controversy since, particularly over a principle that I have tried to make the animating spirit of the series: to choose speakers with outstanding professional credentials who have critical minds and are strongly inclined to go against the grain of establishment thinking. George Orwell called such individuals the awkward squad, a perfect name for them.

There are degrees of awkwardness, in the sense of the term meant by Orwell. I don’t think that the coordinator of a university lecture series should aim at sensationalism or controversy as ends in themselves, but, ideally, every lecture should have revolutionary potential, in the way we think and how we pattern our lives. The French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix thought that the enemy of painting was gray. I think that the enemy of intellectual life is conformity. In his master work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identified the mass conformity of public opinion as the great danger in American life. As a critical institution, the university has a special obligation to be on high alert against this danger.

I have been fascinated over the twenty-eight years and now nearly three hundred speakers to observe how critical thinking has manifested itself in our series across the political spectrum, from left to right. Outstanding left-wing speakers in the series include sociologist William Robinson and economist James Galbraith whose talks illustrated classic Marxist and progressive critiques of American military, economic, and political institutions. We normally assume that conservatives by definition support the status quo, but our series invalidates that assumption. Among conservatives, political scientist John Mearsheimer and historian Andrew Bacevich stand out as full-fledged members of the awkward squad. From a conservative Republican background in Mearsheimer’s case and a conservative Catholic background in that of Bacevich—both of them West Point graduates—we learned that the status quo in the United States abysmally fails the test of traditional American values.

The most famous scientist to speak in the series, the entomologist E. O. Wilson, had the best political joke of all our lecturers. He said that Marx was a genius. His ideas were incontrovertibly true, but for ants, not for humans. He went on to present us with an impassioned plea regarding the danger to the of the people in the room had gotten over their indignant sputtering. None of what we have done would have been possible without thenatural world resulting from the species degradation made inevitable by the insanely wasteful ways we misuse the resources of a planet now being brought to its knees.

Art and music have been well represented in the series. We have enjoyed many standout performances, but for sheer critical bravura the musician and music radio commentator, Miles Hoffman, gave the most intellectually challenging talk in this category, by asserting that the entirety of the avant-garde tradition in art and music had been an esthetic disaster for the Western world. He had an unparalleled knack for engendering the liveliest of discussions, once most of the people in the room had gotten over their indignant sputtering.

None of what we have done would have been possible without the splendid work of the assistants I have had in the President’s Office. I also owe a deep debt of gratitude to students and colleagues across campus, as well as to citizens of Missoula, who have acted as talent scouts and given me the benefit of their recommendations for people to invite. I especially wish to thank Jim Koch and two other UM presidents, George Dennison and Royce Engstrom, who have kept me in this job, despite some irate telephone messages and letters over the years calling for the series to be placed in more responsible hands.

Published originally in the University of Montana History Department newsletter, Autumn 2014

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