Students look back on extraordinary fall events

Allen Linton will never forget the afternoon of Nov. 25, when he and 60 other students listened as Vice President Joe Biden discussed his life and career in public service.

“I’m looking up, and the vice president of the United States is three feet away from me, looking me in the eye,” recalled Linton, AB’11, now a second-year PhD student in political science. “It was pretty remarkable.”

Autumn Quarter brought abundant opportunities for scholars and students like Linton to interact with prominent leaders and thinkers from around the world. In just three months, the University of Chicago hosted a remarkable number of distinguished guests who came to share their expertise in art, history, literature, journalism, international relations and politics—and to learn from their UChicago colleagues.

Campus hosts for the events included the Institute of Politics, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, Campus and Student Life, and other units of the University. President Robert J. Zimmer co-hosted a U.S.-China Presidents Roundtable that featured Madame Liu Yandong, vice premier of the People’s Republic of China. At the Institute of Politics, the guests included Sens. Claire McCaskill, John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, who addressed current policy issues like abortion, gay marriage, immigration and the government shutdown.

In fact, Warren was so occupied with events in Washington during the lead-up to the shutdown that she was forced to cancel her Sept. 27 trip to Chicago so she could vote on a spending bill. Instead, she spoke with students via videoconference shortly before heading to the Senate floor. But her interaction with institute Director David Axelrod and the audience was seamless, with a lighthearted exchange about Warren’s chances of entering the 2016 presidential race (she said she would not).

The mix of Warren’s personal story and her take on events in the nation’s capital made the event “a really great kickoff for the quarter,” said fourth-year Jacob Rabinowitz. It was a reminder that “we’re going to be bringing speakers who are really in the thick of it.”

The Institute of Politics “is great at getting practitioners who are directing the conversation now,” agreed third-year Erin Simpson, who was a 2013 White House intern. “To have someone speak to us as [the debate over the spending bill] was happening was such an important moment.”  

The diverse group of institute speakers also included Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and CNN’s Jake Tapper.

In October, Campus and Student Life hosted Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly gay person to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Parker delivered a keynote lecture for Campus and Student Life’s diversity awareness initiative, RISE: Reflect, Intervene, Speak, Engage.

The speakers on campus represented a wide range of ideological viewpoints and personal experiences. “It's rare to find a speaker who doesn't say something that really resonates with you,” Simpson said. “It's cool to see those points of connection, when all we hear about are the divergences.”

Chinese Vice Premier Madame Liu Yandong also emphasized points of connection during her visit to campus on Nov. 18. At a meeting of 22 U.S. and Chinese university presidents, Liu, the highest-ranking Chinese official whose portfolio includes higher education, spoke of the importance of collaboration between U.S. and Chinese universities, which she said had the potential to “stimulate creativity by inspiring each other” and help both nations “achieve common development through inclusiveness and mutual learning.”

Alongside policy experts and practitioners, the University also welcomed leaders in the arts to campus during the Autumn Quarter. Acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge, whose work includes animated films, prints, drawings and opera, delivered the inaugural lecture for the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society on Oct. 3. Just a month later, Booker Prize-winning novelist A.S. Byatt participated in “Forms of Fiction,” a three-day conference focused on classic English novels.

Rabinowitz said he’s amazed by the opportunities that have been presented to him during his time at the University, and particularly through his involvement with the Institute of Politics. “Three years ago, if you would have told me around five times a week I would have the opportunity to go hear from a speaker who’s either a political practitioner or in public service, the vice president, John McCain—I never would have believed you,” he said. “We’ve built something pretty special.”