Brookdale Community College has had a long history of attracting guest speakers to its campus. One man in particular, history professor Jack Needles, put Brookdale on the map when it came to inviting well known people to our institution. He was what Jess Le Vine, another history professor who took over this task upon Jack Needle’s retirement, called “a genius at getting big names to come to [Brookdale].” This legacy has led to a tradition of having people come to our campus to “shine a light on this corner of the world.”
Over the years, speakers like Sergei Khrushchev, Tim O’Brien, Gloria Steinem, Helen Fisher, and now this year Ken Burns have spoken to our students and members of the extended Brookdale community. According to Jess Le Vine, the goal in inviting speakers of such eminence is to help our students connect with national icons or global scholars. For our students, they are reminded that Brookdale is an academic destination with global reach, while members of the larger Brookdale community benefit from hearing personally enriching lectures that satisfy a diverse range of interests. Some of these invited icons and scholars have been known to stay and speak to specific classes, which gives community college students an additional experience that to Le Vine is similar to one a student at Harvard might get.
For women’s and gender studies professor Meg Natter, inviting Gloria Steinem to Brookdale offered Brookdale students the chance to meet one of the founding mothers of the Women’s Liberation movement. Obviously, the students could read about her, and maybe even watch a video of her on YouTube, but, according to Natter, by seeing her, “They could feel her energy, and her revolutionary but reserved style, in person.” Natter went on to explain that, like them, Gloria Steinem was once a college student, and perhaps also like many of them, she was brought up by two parents who did not live together. She took on many responsibilities at a young age, and was frustrated by the many doors that were closed to her because she was a woman. To Natter, “that relatability is part of her charm, and was readily apparent when she stayed after the event and met with everyone who waited in line.”
In her decision to invite Gloria Steinem, Natter also recognized the particularly meaningful role Steinem had for the future of community colleges. In the 1960s, when community colleges began to open across the country, the first people to register were women. According to Natter, “They weren’t allowed to register for [classes at] most universities, so those in line [to register] knew it was the best opportunity [they had] to get out of their homemaker lives and see what else they could achieve.” When Natter reached out to Gloria Steinem, she immediately said yes, she would come. She even reduced her rate because she knows the value of community colleges and wanted to make sure to speak to community college students about how they should be grateful that a place like Brookdale exists.
This feeling of pride in community colleges as an important place for student learning encouraged Jess Le Vine to invite Ken Burns to our campus. Although it took five years, Professor Le Vine was ultimately able to arrange a Ken Burns visit. He credits that success, in part, with Brookdale’s custom of having well-known public individuals come to campus. This year, Ken Burns is coming to not only speak at Brookdale, but to be honored at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial’s Annual Salute to Patriotism Gala. Since funding such invites can be very challenging, by combining these two events into one visit, Le Vine was able to rely on financial resources from both Brookdale and the NJ Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Of particular significance to us, Brookdale will be Ken Burns’ first college appearance after The Vietnam War documentary he created was shown on PBS. This unique opportunity has students from Brookdale (and everyone else at Brookdale, too!), as well as those from colleges across the region, eagerly awaiting his arrival. Inviting cultural and historical icons like these to our institutions reminds us that it’s not only Harvard that can challenge students to consider all of life’s many possibilities!
Cite as: Jones, Barbara. 2017. “You Don’t Have to Attend Harvard to Hear Them Speak!” Anthropology News website, December 7, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.715