Skip to main content

The 2024-2025 Feinberg Series: "What Are Universities For?"

Higher education is widely regarded as essential to a flourishing democracy. But today, the university is in crisis: college costs have soared, student debt is in the trillions, and politicians are attacking critical thought.

Why has the public lost confidence in the value of a college degree? What are the university’s core commitments, and whose interests do they serve? How do universities serve or fail to serve their surrounding communities and society at large? How and why has the cost of a college education become so prohibitive, and what may be done to reverse its negative impact on graduates’ long-term well-being? What ideas and forces have sought to remedy the crisis most effectively? How can a rigorous examination of history deepen our understanding of the origins, manifestations and broad-reaching impacts of this crisis?

The 2024-2025 Feinberg series will bring together scholars, journalists, organizers, educators, community members, and student to examine the historic role, forms, and impacts of the American university. We proceed on the conviction that rigorously examining the historical origins of the various ‘crises’ currently engulfing the university is essential to reimagining a sustainable future for the institution – and for democracy itself.

The Series Calendar Will be Posted in Summer of 2024

Fall 2024 Feinberg Series Courses

About the Feinberg Series

The history department’s signature event series, the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series is offered every other academic year thanks to the generosity of Kenneth Feinberg '67 and associates. Each iteration of the series focuses on a “big issue” of clear and compelling concern, generally a policy or social issue. Regularly attended by thousands of people from across the world, Feinberg Series events ground the theme in historical inquiry, context, analysis and experience and featuring a wide variety of events, including lectures, exhibitions, performances, panel discussions and film.


Prior Series Themes

2022–2023: CONFRONTING EMPIRE

The 2022–23 Feinberg Series brought together scholars, journalists, educators, writers, community organizers, and survivors of state violence to examine global histories of U.S. imperialism and anti-imperialist resistance. Engaging an international audience of thousands, the series comprised nine public events—including lectures, panels, and a poetry reading—as well as a four-part workshop series for K–12 educators and more than two dozen linked undergraduate courses. Presented in collaboration with the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy and co-sponsored by more than three dozen community and university partners, Confronting Empire traced the roots of U.S. imperialism from the conquest of North America through the creation of a formal and informal overseas empire in the late 19th century, ending in the present day. 2022-2023 Series Website.


2020–2021: PLANET ON A PRECIPICE: HISTORIES AND FUTURES OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL EMERGENCY 

The 2020–2021 Feinberg Series explored the climate and environmental emergency in historical perspective. Events address the historical origins of ecological destruction and mass extinction; the implications of these phenomena for human and nonhuman survival and ways of life; the role of human politics; the connections between the environmental emergency and histories of capitalism, colonialism, genocide, and white supremacy; human entanglements with the nonhuman world; and the past, present, and future of resistance movements. The series sought to deepen our understandings of this singularly important set of problems through historical analysis, and in doing so, to envision constructive paths forward. The series was offered in partnership with more than 3 dozen community and university partners. Several university courses and a free workshop series for K–12 educators accompanied this year’s series. Recordings of all events are available on the 2020-2021 series website.


2018-2019: ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE: REVOLUTIONARY VISIONS, PAST AND PRESENT 

On the 50th anniversary of the mass movements of 1968, and in the face of growing threats to democracy, to racial, gender, and economic justice, and to environmental sustainability, the 2018 Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series explored revolutionary visions of the future. The series took its inspiration from visionary movements led by poor people and people of color that have confronted the immediate challenges impacting people's lives while simultaneously working to build alternatives. Drawing on the words of historian Robin D.G. Kelley, this series explored their “freedom dreams.” That is, it looks at what people in particular movements dreamed of, what they thought they were fighting for, and how they imagined and built new and radically different worlds. Series events and initiatives explored the radical imaginations of intellectuals, artists, political leaders, renegade thinkers, community organizers, and everyday people who have worked to make another world possible. Audio of many events is available on the history department's podcastMore info here.


2016–2017: THE U.S. IN THE AGE OF MASS INCARCERATION

The 2016–2017 Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series explored the ways that state violence, mass incarceration, and mass criminalization have transformed the U.S. economy, culture and society. More than a dozen panels, performances, gallery exhibitions, and lectures by the nation's leading scholars, artists, and activists addressed a wide range of topics, from police brutality, immigration detention, and carceral feminism to the consequences of incarceration for women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. The series culminated in the opening of the national traveling exhibition States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Stories in collaboration with Wistariahurst Museum, the Wauregan Building, Forbes Library, and Historic Northampton. Several university courses and a free workshop series for K–12 educators, Teaching in the Age of Mass Incarceration, accompanied this year's Feinberg Series. More info here. Audio available on the history department's podcast


2014-2015: MIGRATION MATTERS: RETHINKING IMMIGRATION IN THE MODERN AMERICAS

A brief glance at recent headlines shows that migration is a hotly debated topic, often polarizing communities and inflaming passions on all sides of the political spectrum. The global movement of people in the Americas and elsewhere has a long and complex history. The 2014–2015 Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series brought together scholars, activists, and policymakers to help understand the motivations, circumstances, and conditions that define migrant and immigrant experiences. By moving beyond simple generalizations of “crisis” or a “broken system,” the series analyzed questions surrounding intervention, reform, belonging, and the contested meanings of this “nation of immigrants.” Speakers included Mae Ngai (Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History, Columbia University), Donna Gabaccia (Professor of History, University of Toronto), and María Cristina García (Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies, Cornell University). Local K–12 teachers participated in the series as part of the Department's annual History Institute. To learn more, take a look at the press release and posterVideos of select lectures are available on YouTube.


2012: TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION, HISTORY AND JUSTICE

The 2012 Feinberg Series, “Truth and Reconciliation, History and Justice,” dealt with attempts to achieve truth and reconciliation in the wake of violent and traumatic historical events. The keynote speaker was James Anaya, UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples, who on October 4, 2012, presented “Reconciliation or ‘Just Get Over It’: How Should Societies Answer Indigenous Peoples Today” His lecture followed the daylong symposium “Indigenous Peoples, Truth, and Reconciliation,” featuring speakers from Australia, Canada, and across the United States. Another October panel, “Truth and Reconciliation in Comparative Perspective,” featured speakers from Argentina and Northern Ireland along with a Boston College professor who spoke on South Africa. We were also delighted to welcome Paula Green of Amherst’s Karuna Center for Peacebuilding to describe her work promoting community healing in Rwanda. Our own Professor John Higginson facilitated a discussion of Facing the Truth, a film on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We also offered a cluster of events in Greensboro, N.C., beginning with a screening of the film Greensboro: Closer to the Truth that included an appearance by its director, Adam Zucker, and concluding with a visit by Rev. Nelson N. Johnson and Mrs. Joyce H. Johnson of Greensboro’s Beloved Community Center. The series concluded with two panels discussions. “Is the U.S. Ready for Truth and Reconciliation” addressed slavery, Jim Crow, political prisoners, and Guantanamo. In the final panel, “History and Truth, Reconciliation, and Justice," noted historians presented their concluding reflections.


2010–2011: SPORT IN SOCIETY AND HISTORY

During the 2010–11 academic year, the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series featured the theme “Sport in Society and History.” The series began in September with Elliott Gorn’s aptly titled “Why Should We Care About Sports History” In October the department partnered with Fine Arts to present a conversation with famed musician Hugh Masekela and his son, Salema. That was followed by a screening of their film Umlando—Through My Father’s Eye, which recounts the trip the two men made throughout South Africa in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup. Carlo Rotella, an academic writer who regularly contributes to publications such as the Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine, also visited. During the spring semester other speakers, including Adrian Burgos Jr., Andrew Morris, and Robert Wiener ’74MA, lectured in undergraduate courses. Wiener gave a public lecture, “Drugs in Sport: A Sordid History, Now Being Corrected,” and launched a media blitz for the series. The series also featured panel discussions on diverse themes including sport in Latin America and the history of soccer in Massachusetts. The department presented several sports-related movies and followed them with discussions led by history department faculty including Chris Appy, Jennifer Fronc, and Joyce Berkman. The films included Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, and American Sports, screened with special guest Dave Zirin. In the spring semester the department joined with the Association of Diversity in Sport, a student organization, to present the roundtable discussion “Who is LeBron” In April the series concluded with a talk by Susan Chan, “Testing and Contesting: What Caster Semenya Means to Women’s Sports.”