FEATURE — Summer 2003

  Rite of Assembly

The Assembly Series has brought intellectually enlightening, challenging, and stimulating speakers to campus since the centennial of the University, for the benefit of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the public.

by Ryan Rhea

T.S. Eliot wrote that "tradition cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor." These words can be aptly applied to Washington University's Assembly Series, a weekly lecture series that is celebrating 50 years of existence. The bountiful reflection and intense planning going into the series are evident in the consistent quality of speakers from year to year. Often remembered by alumni as one of the highlights of attending the University—a whole education within itself—the Assembly Series is among the University's greatest traditions, one of the treasures of the Washington University experience.

In terms of range, volume, and consistency, few universities can boast such an expansive lecture tradition. More than topical, the Assembly Series embodies the intellectual principle of learning on a broader scale—each week students, faculty, staff, and alumni are exposed to critical figures and issues within all areas of academic and public life. This complements Washington University's emphasis on a wide-ranging education for its students. Barbara Rea, director of major events and special projects and coordinator of the series, says, "The Assembly Series acts as a portal into the defining issues of our time. Its speakers are some of the most important academic, political, literary, artistic, and social figures behind our culture." Rea points out that for many faculty members and students, the best moments in their Assembly Series experience have not necessarily come from the best-known speakers, but rather from significant experts in their respective fields, such as philosophy, biology, law, history, and anthropology.

The idea for the Assembly Series came out of the University's centennial celebration in 1953, during which then-Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton was examining the University's goals of recruiting the best faculty, establishing a strong Board of Trustees, and increasing the University's prominence as an important regional and national institution. Accordingly, the Assembly Series, which formally began in January 1954, was designed to bring in significant speakers that would attract students from beyond the local area, offer them an extraordinary learning opportunity, and increase the University's image as an important academic center on the national level.

A Sampling of Past Assembly Series Speakers

Political/Historical Figures: Julian Bond, William F. Buckley, Louis Farrakhan, Barry Goldwater, Alger Hiss, Hubert Humphrey, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Patrick Leahy, James Meredith, George Mitchell

Supreme Court Justices: Harry Blackmun, William Orville Douglas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Earl Warren

Writers: Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Jorge Luis Borges, Ray Bradbury, Alex Haley, John Irving, Mario Vargos Llosa, Amy Tan, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut

Scientists: Freeman Dyson, Jack Horner, Richard Leakey, Masters & Johnson, Oliver Sacks, Edward O. Wilson

Essayists/Journalists: Terry Gross, Molly Ivins, Bill Moyers, Susan Sontag, Studs Terkel, Calvin Trillin, Tom Wolfe

Academic Figures: Noam Chomsky, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Jonathan Kozol, Margaret Mead, B.F. Skinner, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Cornel West

Alumni: Henry Hampton, Harold Ramis, William Webster

Artists/Performers: Philip Glass, KRS-One, Wynton Marsalis, Max Roach, Beverly Sills, Leonard Slatkin, Twyla Tharp

Women's Issues: Susan Faludi, Betty Friedan, bell hooks, Patricia Ireland, Gloria Steinam, Naomi Wolf

Nobel Laureates: Jimmy Carter, Francis Crick and James Watson, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Mann, George C. Marshall, Douglass C. North, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Wole Soyinka

Faculty: Raymond Arvidson, Lee Epstein, Wayne Fields, Michael Friedlander, William Gass, Ursula Goodenough, Howard Nemerov, Carl Phillips, Murray Weidenbaum

The creator and administrator of the Assembly Series for the first five years was Marvin Osborn, who served during the 1950s as director of information and later as director of public relations and of funds development. Osborn worked with a student committee in selecting and contacting speakers for the series. The student committee considered suggestions from the faculty and various campus organizations, combing through newspapers and other library resources to learn about each potential speaker and sharing information with each other. Once the committee had decided on a list of speakers, Osborn contacted them, offering an honorarium as well as travel and lodging expenses. This structure largely remains intact today, although the Assembly Series committee consists of an equal number of students and faculty, and it has a three-person department, Major Events and Special Projects, responsible for administration. The department's tasks range from working with the committee and arranging speakers' visits to gathering co-sponsorships from campus and community groups and building publicity for the lectures.

But to fully understand the tradition of the Assembly Series, one has to go much further back in the University's history. From the University's founding in 1853 through its first 50 years, there was a daily gathering in the downtown chapel for students that was nondenominational in nature. This period took place each morning before classes. Around 1905, coinciding with the opening of the Hilltop Campus, the gatherings were held in the chapel bridging North and South Brookings (today 300 Brookings), and on January 30, 1905, the morning before the first classes were held on the new Hilltop Campus, two faculty members, Marshall Snow and Calvin Woodward, spoke in a chapel service about how the University's move to the Hilltop was in fact the realization of a dream set forth by the founders to establish a truly outstanding university in St. Louis.*
Author Carlos Fuentes

In 1909 Graham Chapel—established by a gift from Christine Blair Graham in memory of her late husband, the prominent businessman Benjamin Brown Graham—was dedicated. The new building was constructed largely for the purpose of providing a space for the gatherings, which at that time became a weekly tradition; in fact, Wednesday at 11 a.m. was set aside for the events. Around this time, the "Wednesday Assemblies" took on a more academic nature. More commonly, the Wednesday-11 a.m. slot was used to present a number of prominent figures, selected from the faculty as well as outside the University, speaking on emerging academic trends and important social and political issues. This tradition of University-wide lectures continued through the first half of the 20th century.
The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Under Compton's initiative to increase the University's national prominence, a number of important speakers came to campus in the late '40s and early '50s. These lectures include George C. Marshall's Commencement Address in 1951; composer Aaron Copland addressing "The Role of the Creative Artist in America Today"; and T.S. Eliot, writer and grandson of Washington University co-founder William Greenleaf Eliot, speaking to the graduating class of 1953 on "American Literature and the American Language."

In 1953, when Chancellor Compton's vision led to the establishment of the Assembly Series," the Wednesday-11 a.m. slot was determined to be the perfect time period. Classes were not scheduled during this time so students were free to attend. To this day, most lectures still take place on Wednesdays, and, generally, few classes are scheduled at that hour.

Once the Assembly Series was established, the tradition of great speakers coming to campus intensified, including in the first 10 years figures such as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., eminent behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, Supreme Court Justice William Orville Douglas, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Linus Pauling, and Earl Clement Attlee, the former British prime minister who had defeated Winston Churchill in his campaign during the 1940s. Among the many outstanding lectures of the series in the decades to follow were several delivered by University faculty members. This important aspect of the series showcased the dynamic work being done by the faculty and indicated the University's significance within academia nationally.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with students on campus

In 1974, after two successful decades, the Assembly Series underwent a re-evaluation, supervised by Vice Chancellor Robert Virgil (see "Washington Spirit"). During this time, Trudi Spigel was named the new coordinator for the series, a position she held until retiring in 1994. Spigel worked with the chair of the committee, the late Bill Matheson, professor of comparative literature in Arts & Sciences, who served as chair from the 1960s up to the early 1990s, and whose guiding presence helped shape the Assembly Series during those decades. During this re-evaluation, and with the support of then-Chancellor William Danforth, the lectures became more frequent and wider in scope in order to bring together diverse components of the University, while remaining committed to an open lecture environment that did not shy away from controversy. Since this period, the series has flourished, consistently enlightening, challenging, and stimulating the University community.
Author Toni Morrison with Professor William Gass

"Our intention was to create community, in some way, by bringing in speakers who would draw from all the various constituencies—students from the different schools and colleges, faculty, people from the community, but primarily students—for a shared experience," says Spigel. "Maurice Sendak did that: The chapel was packed with students who had grown up on Where the Wild Things Are; Jimmy Carter did that; Jesse Jackson did that; of course, the Dalai Lama did that, and so did many others.

"We counted on the afternoon discussion sessions and the student-faculty lunches to extend the experience beyond the lecture. And we hoped for some specific student-speaker connection every week," continues Spigel. "We also hoped that the guest lecturer, in each case, would get a sense of the University and go away thinking, 'Now, that's a fine school!'"
U.S. Poet Laureate Mona Van Duyn

Burton Wheeler, professor emeritus of English and religious studies in Arts & Sciences at the University, has introduced many Assembly Series speakers over the years and has delivered an Assembly Series address himself. Among Wheeler's favorite memories is introducing author Elie Wiesel and enjoying conversations with him. Another moment that stands out for Wheeler is meeting the Dalai Lama when he spoke at the University in 1993. "More than any other speaker, the person whose presence most seized me was the Dalai Lama," says Wheeler. "That rather surprised me, because so much was made of him before I met him that I was skeptical. But I found him authentic, open, and gracious."

Wheeler believes one of the best aspects of the series is its wide appeal. "Different speakers appeal to different people, but sometimes the speakers who are least intriguing are those within your field, and the most intriguing are the ones outside of it." He adds, "Washington University's Assembly Series has had so many outstanding speakers that one got a good education just by attending and reading materials associated with it."
Playwright Tennessee Williams

One group that takes full advantage of this "good education" is the Danforth Scholars—University students of exceptional ability, integrity, and leadership. The Danforth Scholars program requires all first-year scholars to attend the Assembly Series each week and then regroup later in the evening for discussion, usually with a faculty member knowledgeable about the lecture's topic.

As it has for the last five decades, the Assembly Series committee continues its work in presenting these outstanding weekly lectures. Catalin Roman, chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and a current member of the committee, describes his enthusiasm for this unique tradition: "Among all the committees I've served on, I am most proud of having been invited to be part of the Assembly Series committee. It deals in a most direct way with the very core of our academic existence: the need to question, explore, and reshape ideas. Every speaker we invite helps us pursue our mission to engage students on the most varied dimensions of our human existence."

Ryan Rhea, A.B. '96, M.A. '01, is an associate publications editor in the Washington University Publications Office.

* Snow was a history professor, first dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and twice acting chancellor; Woodward was a professor of mathematics, director of the University's Manual Tranining School, and first dean of Engineering. At the time of the move to the Hilltop, they had seven decades of service between them. For Snow and Woodward, and other longtime facutly, who had seen the school through the very lean years of the 19th century, that chapel service—the first activity on the new campus—was quite significant.