Intellectual Capital

April 21st, 2007
When the University launched the $1.4 billion Campaign for Academic Enrichment in October, it did what fund-raisers usually do: it threw a big party. The gala held at OMAC on the night of October 22 featured prepared speeches, multiple stages, elaborate lighting, good food, flavorful wine, battery-powered wands, and the presentation to President Simmons of a giant cardboard check (see "Paying Up," Elms, November/December).

Less typical - and more in keeping with Brown's strengths - were the events held earlier that day. Taking a page out of the Commencement playbook, the administration hosted a series of colloquia similar to Commencement forums. Among the most remarkable was a discussion between two Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights: Professor of English Paula Vogel, the director of Brown's MFA program in playwriting, who won the 1998 Pulitzer for How I Learned to Drive, and Nilo Cruz '94 MFA, one of Vogel's former students, who won the 2004 award for Anna in the Tropics. It was an informal, warm discussion, an opportunity to hear two friends and colleagues talk shop.

Vogel said she'd first learned that Cruz had won the Pulitzer online. "I started screaming," she recalled. "Colleagues thought I'd been attacked." Cruz, whose work, in the words of the Pulitzer jury, "blends a distinctively Latin sensibility - magical realism that reads like a dream - with realism, which has its feet on the ground," talked about the risky decision for a Cuban refugee to become a playwright. "My family thought it was crazy," he said, "but when my father saw my name in the newspapers and that I was writing about [Cuba], he was proud." About the influences on his work, he said, "I'm very Catholic in my work. I think of Christ. I think of Mary and what she thought of Judas."

One colloquium showcased economist Glenn Lowry, who was hired away from Boston University last year as part of the faculty expansion mapped out in the Plan for Academic Enrichment. Lowry, who gained some notoriety in the 1980s as the first prominent African American public intellectual to support welfare reform, spoke along with Associate Professor of Sociology Hilary Silver abut economic justice after Katrina.

Lowry pointed out the discrepency between the median income for blacks ($35,000) and whites ($50,000) in the United States. The unequal condition of the races, he insisted, is not an African American issue as it much as it is an American issue. It influences how the rest of the world sees us. "My concern is not blacks," he explained. "When those people stood on those roofs in New Orleans, they were viewed by the rest of the world as a symbol. Those images are the measure of our collective conscience." He was not absolving African Americans of personal responsibility, he emphasized, but was reminding his listeners that it was only one factor.

"Poverty won the War on Poverty," he said. "So say the neoconservatives. I'm advocating that you be an American in the best sense, rather than sneering and saying, 'What's wrong with these people?' What does it mean that Michigan spends more on prisons than on higher education. Are we to become a nation of jailers?"

By raising ideas in forums that are distinctly Brown's, the day's discussions made up some of the best fund-raising pitches of the Campaign so far.

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Related Issue
January / February 2006