UMass hosts lecture series focused on inequality

By Anthony Rentsch

(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)
(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

With the winds of public discourse swirling in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, the subject of inequality has been prevalent on the University of Massachusetts campus—including in a new lecture series, which will run throughout the academic year.

The Perspectives in Inequality lecture series, organized by the Task Force on Promoting the Social Sciences, will feature world-renowned guest lecturers speaking about inequality “across the gamut of social sciences,” said Laurel Smith-Doerr, director of the Institute for Social Science Research and the chairperson of the task force. Lectures will be held Sept. 29, Oct. 10, 15 and 27 and Nov. 5 and 8. The series will continue in the spring.

The series has attracted well-known speakers, including Thomas Piketty, author of the New York Times best seller, “Capital in the 21st Century,” and Wilbert Rideau, author of the 2011 Dayton International Peace Prize winner, “In the Place of Justice.” The new UMass Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Katherine Newman, who is conducting cutting-edge research on inequality, will also lecture during the series.

Lectures will cover the theme of inequality in a variety of arenas including politics, economics, anthropology and even landscape architecture.
“Inequality is a core topic that spans the University,” Smith-Doerr said. “The theme has resonance with UMass,” she added, noting that the University has “traditional values of social justice and community engagement.”

“We are increasingly faced with injustice in society,” said Leda Cooks, communication professor at UMass. “Once we bring (the theme of injustice) into the classroom…there are a lot of connections across departments.”

Not only does the lecture series span multiple academic areas, it also incorporates many different perspectives from the lecturers, who are notonly professors, but also journalists, authors, sociologists, community activists and more.

At the end of the 2014 spring semester, Interim Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences John Hird proposed the idea of such a lecture series. He then charged the task force with coming up with a theme and coordinating lecturers with help from different departments within SBS.

Smith-Doerr said that it was incredible how successful the task force has been in coordinating the lecture series in a short period of time.
According to Smith-Doerr, SBS has held seminar series in the past, but Hird wanted the task force to think bigger. He wanted a vehicle to promote inter-college discussion and to showcase “the amazing research that students and faculty do that is not always highlighted.”

Smith-Doerr said that the Perspectives in Inequality series is a part of a larger “Social Sciences Matter” campaign that will bring lecture series with different focuses every year. She said that sustainability, changes in higher education and racial inequality are potential themes for upcoming years.

Although there is no timeline for the “Social Sciences Matter” campaign, Smith-Doerr said if the first lecture of the series was any indication of how successful the series will be, it is here to stay.

On Sept. 10, Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, spoke about worldwide inequality to a filled Cape Cod Lounge in front of UMass students, faculty and members of the Amherst community. Following his lecture, Prashad answered questions and conversed with the audience about issues ranging from the World Bank Group to student debt.

Smith-Doerr said she hopes the series continues to be successful and believes that the scientific perspective utilized by the social sciences has many important benefits for the UMass community.

“It helps us to see patterns that we do not normally observe,” she said. “It offers us a different kind of lens that goes beyond common sense. Looking at similar social phenomena from different perspectives adds a certain richness and creates nice synergies across campus.”

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected]