Thought leaders converge at UNC Asheville for conversations that matter and make a difference.
In a year of national attention, campaign politics, and global forums, UNC Asheville has been a place for going far beyond slogans and soundbites. The campus and the Asheville community have had the chance to hear from and engage with prominent thinkers from around the nation and the world.
“We are the public liberal arts university for the state of North Carolina and one of the things we do is bring people together for important conversations, and for learning and building community,” said Chancellor Mary K. Grant in her introduction to Sir Salman Rushdie, the renowned author and champion of free expression who spoke to a packed Kimmel Arena in February.
Can We Talk?
“I have to say I’m a little bit worried—I see there are a lot of students here—about you guys,” said Rushdie. “Because this generation of students in America has begun to internalize the idea that silencing certain kinds of speech is worth doing, even though you live in the country of the First Amendment, which says the opposite.” Rushdie, a native of India, knows all too well how fragile yet important the right of free speech can be—in response to his novel The Satanic Verses, Iran’s leaders issued a fatwa calling for his death.
“Of course, students at university should live in a safe space in terms of their physical safety. But the thought that they should be protected from ideas that they might find surprising or difficult is the opposite of the reason why people go to university.
“Universities should be safe spaces for ideas, not safe from ideas. And you as young people should be challenged in what you take for granted, exposed to ideas that you haven’t heard before and maybe that you don’t like. How else will you learn how to think?”
Rushdie, winner of countless literary awards, says that novels can illuminate truth in a way that much contemporary journalism fails to do, and he argued that in the digital information age, people find enough information (and misinformation) to support not just opposing views, but mutually exclusive realities. “The world no longer has the solidity that it had in the age of the great realist novel, where the writer and the reader could basically have the same description of the world,” he said. “Now we live in a much more fractured moment in which there is no such agreement. … The world is becoming, in a way, fictionalized. … The real has become a problem—we don’t agree on what the real is.”
In that disagreement, though, can come dialog and discussion, and UNC Asheville was the place for both in 2015-16, with several prominent speakers coming to stages and forums across campus.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of America’s most prominent intellectuals and the producer and host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, shared his personal journey to learning his own ancestry and shared his conclusions about African-American roots more generally. His talk was the keynote in Kimmel Arena for the 20th anniversary celebration of UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education.
“So what is the larger import of all of this—why do I do it? I do it because of the thrill of learning more about identity. … I know the electricity that you get when you find your ancestors. And so I have been working with colleagues—geneticists, social scientists and historians—to develop this curriculum. When I was coming up in the 1950s, the blackest thing you could be was an educated man, not a basketball player or an entertainer. That was fine, but the heroes of the race were W.E.B Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune—serious intellectuals—becoming a doctor or a lawyer was making a contribution to the race. … Far too many of our own children within the race have lost that understanding of the value of education, for many reasons …”
The Reuter Center hosted the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, who spoke at UNC Asheville at the invitation of the university’s Carol Belk Distinguished Professor Mark Gibney. An economist by training, the leading political figure in Denmark has served as that nation’s finance minister, foreign minister and speaker of the parliament.
Lykketoft reflected on the UN’s 70 year history, but was most emphatic about the urgent work needed to stop climate change, saying, “There are three times as many people in this world as there were 70 years ago. … We are reaching some of the limits of the globe. … We have to live in a different way. … We have to do it now…. The world cannot now in a decent way deal with 60 million displaced persons, less than 1 percent of the human race. If climate change is allowed to accelerate, it will be hundreds of millions dislocated from where they live now because of rising sea levels, because of lack of fresh water when the glaciers melt down, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to foresee how many conflicts will be generated.”
Perry Horse, a member of the Kiowa Nation and one of the founders of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, spoke in Highsmith Union.
“For me being bilingual is a big part of my Indian identity. If someone says something to me in English—I can hear and understand it in the context of American culture. Sometimes I translate what was said into Kiowa and I hear the meaning in relation to Kiowa culture. There is a deep value in being able to do that,” said Horse.
“Indians everywhere are moving from dependency, which was forced on us by the federal government for decades, to independence. The past is always there as a guide to us. Just as Black Elk said, ‘put it away and find a new strength.’”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Karsonya Wise Whitehead, the author of Letters to My Black Sons and an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland, spoke in Highsmith Union about the Black Lives Matter movement as UNC Asheville students initiated discussions on campus. Whitehead began her talk with an excerpt from her essay, Songs in a Key Called Baltimore:
I would like to proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter and then point to the ways in which this simple concept/screamed and shouted, cried over and prayed about/has transformed the city and altered our space. …
I try and hide my frustration because in the aftermath of the Uprising/a time when black and white people named their pain/life has settled back down to the familiar/to a time where black bodies are once again endangered, black life is once again criminalized, and black spaces exist, once again, only on the edges of both the city and our minds.
Geoffrey Stone, one of the nation’s leading First Amendment scholars, spoke in the Humanities Lecture Hall, invited by Brian E. Butler, a student of Stone’s during his time at the University of Chicago, and now the Thomas Howerton Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at UNC Asheville.
“Universities have to be absolutely committed to the freedom to discuss ideas,” said Stone, who led the committee that drafted the University of Chicago’s statement on academic freedom. “There can be no censorship by the university of students or faculty members in the expression of whatever ideas they believe to be worthy of discussion, debate and question. That’s what makes us a university and any failure to live up to that is a betrayal of our core value and mission.”