Keeping the humanities vital: Holden Thorp to deliver Phi Beta Kappa/Sigma Xi Lecture

Assembly Series program marks the 100th anniversary of WUSTL’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter


Last June, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences published a report, “The Heart of the Matter,” making the case that the humanities and social sciences are necessary for a vibrant, competitive and secure nation. This is not the usual argument for the humanities, and that’s a good thing, according to Holden Thorp, PhD.

Thorp is provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as a professor of chemistry and of medicine. He recently was elected to the board of the National Humanities Center.

“We in higher education have an obligation to keep the humanities vital,” he said. “But we need to find a way to talk about the humanities to our external stakeholders that also resonates internally.”

Thorp’s Phi Beta Kappa/Sigma Xi Lecture, at 5 p.m. Thursday, April 17, in Simon Hall’s May Auditorium, will be a good place to start the conversation. The event is free and open to the public.

In his presentation, “From Salesman to Hamletmachine: The Need for the Humanities,” Thorp will consider the current state of the humanities in American higher education and examine the arguments and strategies being used to garner support for its teaching and research within the current fiscal and political context. Citing texts such as “The Heart of the Matter” and Martha Nussbaum’s book, “Not for Profit,” he will provide perspective from his years of arguing for the humanities as a dean and chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Washington University.

There are many areas of current debate and disagreement among groups and individuals making the case for the humanities. Some questions that will be considered include:

• Is there a crisis in the humanities?

• Should the same arguments used for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” be used to mobilize support for the humanities?

• Can we find a way to talk about the humanities to our external stakeholders that also resonates internally?

Thorp earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UNC and a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology.

At UNC, he was Kenan Professor of Chemistry and also served in a number of administrative roles, including chair of chemistry, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chancellor. He is co-author, with Buck Goldstein, of “Engines of Innovation.” He is a co-founder of Viamet Pharmaceuticals, which is commercializing new drugs for prostate cancer and anti-fungal indications.

The Phi Beta Kappa/Sigma Xi Lecture is held annually as part of the WUSTL chapter’s initiation ceremony, which will follow the talk and feature remarks by Jennifer Smith, PhD, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and associate professor of earth and planetary sciences.

This year marks Phi Beta Kappa’s centennial anniversary on this campus, having been established in 1914 as the Beta chapter in Missouri. Founded during the American Revolution at the College of William and Mary, the academic honor society celebrates excellence in and advocates for the liberal arts and sciences.

The Sigma Xi honor society was established to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public’s understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition.

This lecture concludes the spring semester’s Assembly Series. Look for the fall schedule in late August at the Assembly Series website.