Assembly Series to touch on economy, environment, ethics

Politics is on everyone’s mind, especially as Washington University prepares to host the vice presidential debate in October. Befittingly, the Assembly Series offers programs highlighting some of the central issues of the day: the environment, the economy and government ethics.

First up: a little levity. Opening the season is political satirist Mo Rocca, whose mix of clever insights and silly opinions puts the fun in “fundit.” The event will take place at 4 p.m. Sept. 10 in Graham Chapel. Seating will be limited for the public; doors open at 3 p.m.


Rocca’s television appearances, beginning in 1998 on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” established his credentials as a bona fide “fake” correspondent, a persona he embraced. He soon attracted interest from the real media, notably Larry King, with whom he worked as on-floor correspondent at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

In addition, he has worked as a writer and producer for children’s television shows, including “Wishbone” and the “Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss,” although he became better known as a media gadfly on VH1’s lowbrow series, “I Love The 80s.”

Rocca’s career continues to be varied and unpredictable. He keeps busy as a recurring contributor for NBC’s “Tonight Show” and CBS’s “Sunday Morning”; he’s a regular panelist on NPR’s news quiz show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me”; and he blogs at “Mo Rocca 180 (Only Half as Tedious as the Regular News!)” His Broadway debut as the vice principal in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was both a critical and popular hit.

Returning to more serious concerns, veteran New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert will take the chapel stage at 4 p.m. Sept. 17. Kolbert’s book, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change,” was chosen as this year’s book for incoming students to read and will be the subject of group discussions throughout the fall semester.


Written much in the same manner as “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 expose about the harm of pesticides to the environment, Kolbert’s story is a sobering look at what global warming is doing to the planet.

The American economy is on everyone’s minds, not only regarding what’s happening now but also how we got here. WUSTL economist Steven Fazzari, Ph.D., will offer his perspective at 4 p.m. Sept. 24 in Graham Chapel.

Fazzari, who is a professor of economics in Arts & Sciences and associate director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy, believes that the past two decades of remarkable American consumption growth created a shopping spree that strengthened the economy as long as it could be financed, but the associated explosion of household debt culminated in our current troubles.

Assembly Series programs take a short break in late September due to the vice presidential debate Oct. 2. A number of activities are scheduled throughout that week covering a variety of topics related to the election and the debate. A list of these programs can be found at

What distinguishes human beings from all other species? Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., whose program will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 8 in Graham Chapel, thinks it is the impulse toward artistic expression. Drawing from his research as a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist as well as from experience as a musician and record producer for such rock legends as Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder, Levitin has written books advancing his theory, including “This Is your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,” and the newly released “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.”


Change the world and make a profit doing it — it’s an appealing idea with growing interest to young Americans who would like to put their business acumen to use as change agents. Alumnus Jay Swoboda (A.B. ’02) has successfully synthesized his talents and is making a change here in St. Louis in the affordable housing sector. His talk will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 15 in the Danforth University Center.

Peggy Orenstein‘s books concentrate on the special issues facing women in contemporary society. From “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap” (1994) to “Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-changed World” (2000) and most recently “Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother,” she writes candidly about the challenges inherent in the lives of girls, women and mothers in a world that is neither completely liberated nor entirely restricted. Orenstein’s presentation will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 21 in Graham Chapel.

Carl Bernstein achieved fame early in his career as a reporter for the Washington Post. He and Bob Woodward broke the Watergate scandal and together with his colleagues at the Post brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. In the past three decades, Bernstein has published several books, including the most recent, “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Bernstein will give a talk at 4 p.m. Oct. 23 in Graham Chapel.


Liz Lerman has devoted her career as a dancer, choreographer and educator to creating art that is truly egalitarian. The MacArthur “genius grant” recipient will spend a two-week residency in WUSTL’s Performing Arts Department and recruit people of all ages to perform one of her most acclaimed pieces, “Still Crossing.”

At 4 p.m. Oct. 30, she will join other panelists to discuss how art can build communities and express identities. The event will be held in the Women’s Building Lounge.

Culture, history, race and politics all have played a significant hand in creating the uneven health-care system America has today. Health-policy historian Keith Wailoo, Ph.D., who runs the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers University, will share his insights at 4 p.m. Nov. 11 in a location to be determined.

Among the compelling memoirs of Holocaust survivors, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” stands out as an extraordinary story of Daniel Mendelsohn‘s search to find out what happened to six of his family members who perished.

At the annual Holocaust Memorial Lecture at 4 p.m. Nov. 12 in Graham Chapel, Mendelsohn will discuss the ways and the need to tell these stories after the survivors have gone.

All Assembly Series programs are free and open to the public. For information and updates, check the Web site at or call 935-5285.