MLA seminars examine societal role of universities

What is the proper role of American higher education in shaping the values and ambitions of a free democratic society, and, more specifically, what are the University’s responsibilities as a citizen of the greater St. Louis community, the nation and the world?

Getting the campus and surrounding community to reflect on these questions is the goal of the Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program’s “Democracy and the University” seminar series, which will be held at 11 a.m. each Saturday in February in the Goldfarb Auditorium of McDonnell Hall.

The annual series is sponsored by University College and the MLA program in Arts & Sciences.

“The nature of the MLA program has always been to take on large and multifaceted topics, questions and problems and consider them from a variety of disciplinary perspectives,” said Robert Wiltenburg, Ph.D., dean of University College.

“We thought the ‘Democracy and Citizenship’ initiative would provide an ideal topic for inquiry of this sort in our February seminar series,” Wiltenburg said.

The 2009 MLA Seminar Series explores four issues that are central to a larger, University-wide Democracy and Citizenship Initiative (DCI) announced in May 2008 by Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., provost, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, while he was dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences.

“The Democracy and Citizen-ship Initiative is a University-wide effort to stimulate a focused conversation among the University community about its special role in a democratic society and of the general relationship between institutions of higher education and a free society,” said Randall Calvert, Ph.D., the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science and director of the American Culture Studies program in Arts & Sciences, which is coordinating the DCI.

The seminars are free and open to the public, and no registration is required.

For more information, visit or call 935-6700.

Seminar topics and presenters include:

Feb. 7. “Thomas Jefferson on Democracy, Elitism, and the University,” David T. Konig, Ph.D., professor of history and director of the Legal Studies Program, both in Arts & Sciences, and professor of law.

Feb. 14. “Science and Society,” Barbara A. Schaal, Ph.D., the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor in biology in Arts & Sciences.

Feb. 21. “Why Universities Sponsor Presidential Debates,” Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in Arts & Sciences.

Feb. 28. “The Legal Idea of a University in a Democratic Society,” Kent D. Syverud, J.D., the Ethan A. H. Shepley University Professor and dean of the School of Law.

“These lectures deal, in various ways, with the opportunities and the tensions inherent in the university-democracy relationship in national political issues,” Calvert said.

These tensions, according to Calvert, include:

• the balance to be struck between democratic egalitarianism and academic elitism;

• the occasional opposition between science-based policy goals and various social interests and cultural beliefs not based in science;

• the ways in which the law allocates both special privileges and special responsibilities to the university; and

• the benefits and hazards that result when a national election campaign visits campus for a debate.

Two faculty presenting seminars in the MLA series also are chairing campus committees exploring similar issues as part of the DCI.

Schaal heads a DCI committee considering issues of Science and Society; Syverud chairs a committee exploring The University and the National Community.

Other DCI committees include:

• The University and the Local Community, chaired by Bruce Lindsey, dean of the College of Architecture and the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts;

• The University and the Global Community, chaired by James V. Wertsch, Ph.D., the Marshall S. Snow Professor in Arts & Sciences and director of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and of International & Area Studies Program in Arts & Sciences; and

• Democracy and the Liberal Arts in the University, chaired by Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and director of the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences.

For more information on the initiative, visit