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  • In Praise of the Arts

    Dear Colleagues:

    This week I will present a keynote address on higher education, the arts, and philanthropy for the Washington Women’s Foundation. The talk will take place at the Seattle Art Museum, where a new Paul Gauguin exhibition debuts. 

    Gauguin once said, “It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object; beware of this stumbling block.” It’s that first part of his statement that resonates: the eye of ignorance that reduces the infinite number of hues into a gray, fixed world, a world none of us wants to live in. That’s where higher education—the reason we all work so hard—can make a real difference. Higher education gives us the eyes to see the subtle colors of our world. Higher education allows us the pleasure to enjoy diversity, not only in people but in ideas, books, and art. Higher education is the balm against ignorance.

    Universities provide economic opportunity and mobility, producing discoveries that build prosperity, creating jobs and improving human lives.  American higher education--in its dedication to a breadth and depth of knowledge that goes beyond a narrow technical focus--has proven to be a generator of imagination, wisdom and creativity, the very capacities that serve as foundations for building our common future.

    We, like so many other universities, must balance multiple factors.  We must educate students to compete globally in an increasingly technological world through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and a focus on strong analytical, quantitative and precise thinking. Equally important, though, we must recognize that the arts and humanities often are founded on many of the same principles.

    The challenge today is to respond to the pressure to educate in narrow ways: in ways that so overemphasize STEM areas that a college education no longer includes any exposure to the arts, not even an art appreciation class much less first hand exposure to music, painting or dance.

    I must admit that I really did not appreciate the importance of the fine and performing arts until I was an adult.  I was raised by two scientists and learning about and appreciating art came later.  I will never forget the amazing experience in my first art history course at Swarthmore College.  My professor was the consummate scholar/performer/teacher. He showed me, a science major, that paintings were not just pretty.  He taught me that there was as much rigor in creating art as in scientific discovery: the light of Vermeer, the perspective of depth of Chinese landscape, the ethereal sense of atmosphere in Turner.  Every lecture was the essence of artistic analysis.

    Nor will I ever forget the day, the moment really, when I heard my nine-year-old daughter play the first movement of the Bach Cello Suite No.1. That was when I realized that she really had talent that exceeded that of the casual music student. My world, and hers, opened up that day. It changed the trajectory of her life--and mine--forever. Erica is now a concert cellist.

    Embracing the intersection of the arts, science, and technology within higher education is a tremendous opportunity for us. Art museums and performing arts centers on university campuses have the responsibility of being on the cutting edge of discovery, similar to the missions of scientific centers. 

    Our world-class Krannert Art Museum and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts have the privilege and responsibility to bring new works, to entertain, educate, and be edgy, but not inaccessible. So they also have the tripartite land-grant mission of learning, discovery, and engagement.

    In our ever expanding world, in our necessary push to globalize, we cannot neglect the arts. The arts have the potential to be the glue that allows cross cultural exchanges. To whatever extent the arts are ignored or starved, will mean that our ability to enhance cross cultural exchange will be less than optimal. I urge you to continue to support the vibrant arts scene on our campus and in our community.

    With gratitude for all your hard work,

    Phyllis

    Around the Campus: The Vice President for Academic Affairs is pleased to announce the spring 2012 President's Research in Diversity Travel Award.  This is a competitive university-wide award providing up to ten students with a certificate and funding, up to $600, to travel to a professional conference between April 1, 2012 and September 30, 2012.  These conference travel awards are intended to support student candidates who will be presenting papers, posters, or creative work related to issues of diversity or identity, such as those involving race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and national origin.  Urbana graduate and professional students are eligible to apply.  The application deadline is March 15, 2012.  Details and the application are available at http://www.vpaa.uillinois.edu/programs/diversity-travel-award.cfm.