Skip to main content

Historic Buffett gift to transform global studies at Northwestern

Panel of Northwestern scholars showcases University’s hopes, vision on gift’s impact

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Moderated by President Morton Schapiro, a high-powered panel of Northwestern University experts from across disciplines and around the world showcased the exciting possibilities for scholarship, research and experiential learning created today (Jan. 28) by an historic gift of more than $100 million to the University.

In honor of the donor, alumna Roberta Buffett Elliott, the president led a panel discussion of the gift’s potential impact as he adroitly questioned one global dean, one well-traveled med student and four knowledgeable faculty members representing disciplines ranging from history, literature and economics to religion, theatre and communication.

The largest single donation in Northwestern’s history will transform global programming at the University, create the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies, support scholarships for international students and fund fellowships, travel, interdisciplinary professorships and research at home and abroad.

The overflow crowd of deans, trustees, faculty, students, staff, media and guests at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall was riveted by the panel discussion of key global issues and all the different ways such an unprecedented donation might make a difference in the lives and global learning of Northwestern faculty and students now and into the future.

A major strategic priority of the University’s fundraising effort -- We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern -- is to “Engage Locally and Globally,” observed Chairman of the Board of Trustees William Osborn in his introductory remarks.

“As one of the world’s leading universities, Northwestern is rising to the challenge of addressing the most critical issues facing our global society,” Osborn said. “At the same time, we are helping our students gain a worldview and preparing them to be truly global leaders.”


Introducing the panel, President Schapiro began by recalling when he and Robert McQuinn, vice president for alumni relations and development, had dinner a month ago with Roberta and David Elliott and talked about their vision for what would become the Buffett Institute.

“We asked her: Are there any particular topics that are near and dear to your heart?” President Schapiro said. “She immediately talked about religious freedom, religious tolerance, with all the things going on in the world. It’s a great interest to her, thinking about her grandchildren and about her own legacy.

“I couldn’t agree more, as someone whose faith defines me, the religious turmoil out there in the world is even more upsetting than it might otherwise be,” the president added. “It’s of great interest in terms of what Northwestern can do for the world. It’s of special interest to Bertie and David as well.”

Then, he put the first question to panelist Beth Shakman Hurd, associate professor of political science, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, to help sort out the global implications of religious freedom in a time of global religious strife.

Hurd, who has a courtesy appointment in religious studies, has for the last four years been directing a project on the politics of religious freedom, which has taken researchers to four continents.

She called students a most valuable resource in addressing the challenge of co-existence in our diverse global society.

“Religion does not stand apart from law, society or politics,” she said. “It is entangled in complex ways with social and political realities and practices.

“I think students relate particularly well to this balancing act, because it often resonates with their own experience. In many ways, the students and their experiences are our most valuable resource. I am sure this generous gift will transform that experience.”


 Following are summaries and excerpts from the scholars questioned by President Schapiro in the hour-long panel discussion on global issues and the historic Buffett gift:

  • Beth Shakman Hurd, associate professor of political science, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

In further discussing religious freedom, Hurd said, “Today there is a pressing need to respond to the challenges of living together in a diverse global society. We need to think creatively. How do we move ‘beyond religious freedom’? How can we have a richer conversation about religion, law and global politics? This is where I start to feel optimistic.

“My work suggests three ways that scholars and public intellectuals can address the challenges associated with the global politics of religious diversity,” she said.

“The first is to better understand relations between religion and modern law and the state. How do various legal systems, including international human rights law, shape religious traditions and possibilities? Religion does not stand apart from law, society or politics. It is entangled with social and political realities and practices. We should talk about how those traditions shape legal processes, and how legal processes shape religious practices, both around the world and here at home,” Hurd said.

“The second is the challenge of co-existence. We need to identify best practices for staging a more nuanced and informed discussion on how to live together in a deeply diverse global society. This will require seeing that the categories ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ aren’t self-evident. We need better tools and strategies to think about the place of religion in this world. As we tell these new stories, as we better each other’s histories and experiences, we generate new possibilities for living together amid deep diversity.”

Lastly, she said, “The third is a pedagogical challenge, and by this I mean students at all levels as well as public outreach. One of my objectives in teaching on these issues is to expose students to religious histories and practices in their social, legal and political contexts. Religion is not set aside, but neither does it dominate the conversation.

“Students relate to this balancing act, because it resonates with their own experience. In many ways, the students and their experience are our most valuable resource. I am sure this generous gift will transform that experience. I look forward to being a part of that effort.”

  • Joel Mokyr, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences, Weinberg

President Schapiro asked Joel Mokyr why he was convinced the future of economic growth was bright, in contrast to the opinions of some of his colleagues. 

Mokyr replied: “The last 150 years have been absolutely miraculous in the history of the human race. The living standards that would have been unimaginable in the 1870s have been attained not just by the very wealthy and top layers of society, but basically, by regular citizens. The average life expectancy in the world today is 73 for women and 68 for men. In the 1870s it was in the upper 30s. We have doubled it. That gives you an indication of what we have achieved.” 

Mokyr said that people now tend to think that it’s all uphill and that growth will trickle down to a thin level and maybe go away altogether.

“My view is quite the contrary,” he added. “We have seen a great deal of growth, a great deal of technological change. But, as far as the future is concerned, my position can be stated with the American colloquialism: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ And, “The best is still to come!’ “

Mokyr said history allows us to identify certain factors that have been instrumental in bringing about economic growth -- particularly the engine of economic growth, which is basically the increments in human knowledge -- whether it’s science or technology.

“One of the overlooked factors in the growth of an economy is what I call the great feedback loop. Technology, we know, enhances productivity. Technology also helps science. Science itself then feeds back into technology, so in that sense, technology pulls itself up by the bootstraps,” he observed.

“And it’s not perhaps an accident that these great periods of progress in science occurred in the 17th century after the invention of a bunch of instruments -- the microscope, the telescope, the barometer, vacuum pump, which allowed the great scientists of the 17th century to make huge advances. 

“What is it that scientists have at their disposal today?” he asked. “You realize that the set of tools and instruments that they can use to advance science are vastly better than what anybody had ever imagined in the past.

“Galileo would give his right hand to take one peek through the Hubble telescope,” Mokyr exclaimed. “These are tools that are immensely more powerful -- science will be allowed to do things that we cannot imagine.”

“My second argument has to do very much with issue of global studies and globalization. The world today consists of a number of blocks of countries -- there’s the United States, the EU, there’s China -- who are all competing in world marketplaces and because it is so competitive they have to look over their shoulders to see what the other guys are doing. Are we keeping up with their technology? Are they getting ahead of us?” he asked. 

“Within a few decades we will have Africa, and hopefully the Middle East, India,” he said. “The world consists of these large blocs that compete with each other. In that sense there is something to be learned from the historical record, because one of the great keys to the success of Europe is the fact that there were these competing nations that kept keeping up with one another, so nobody could fall behind -- economically, politically, militarily. 

“These competing blocs sometimes fall off the cliff. And when they do, you end up in August 1914 (start of World War I), and then competition is not such a hot thing.

“As long as we can keep the world in this condition in which we compete on friendly terms with one another, trying to get ahead of each other in matters technological, scientific, economic, that’s fine. What we should make absolutely sure is that we don’t go through another 1914 -- and that, of course, is a big if, and there my optimism is somewhat tempered.”

  • Everette Dennis, dean and CEO, Northwestern University in Qatar

As the dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, Everette Dennis is already preparing mostly international students for lives in a global society and the rapidly evolving world of journalism and media. “In Qatar we live in the world of global media; we study it, we teach it, and we prepare students for roles in unusual circumstances,” he said.

It’s an often challenging road, he observed. Though change is occurring in the Middle East, it’s incremental, said Dennis, noting: “Freedom of expression is the reason Northwestern is in Qatar; we’re trying to understand what constitutes freedom of expression in a national sense, a global sense, and in the Middle East.”

Dennis’s goal for the new Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies is “to become a catalyst for defining Northwestern University foreign policy,” he said. “Once that’s established, the University can fashion a global engagement strategy to put all the pieces together.”

Some Northwestern research suggests the quality of journalism in the region is improving, he suggested. But even more striking is when the students, who are predominantly Muslim, tell Dennis they are learning many more perspectives and views at the University than they do at home, Dennis said. “They talk about getting a multifaceted view of Islam; they didn’t know there were 10 perspectives to an issue,” Dennis explained. “Some had never heard about a two-state solution (to the Israel-Palestinian divide), because that had never been discussed. Now it’s on the table.”

The jumbled media landscape, which includes social media, large multinational corporations, small start-ups and other sophisticated and primitive players, has left Dennis optimistic about the future. Despite the view by some that the progress of the Arab Spring has stalled, Dennis emphasized that the use of social media has skyrocketed across the Mideast, and NU-Q’s research shows this is where much of the progress toward free expression is now found.

“People are communicating with each other on controversial subjects in fascinating ways. They’re challenging governments and doing things that are indeed very brave, a great model for our students. This is something we study,” Dennis added, “the future of media. I’m optimistic about it.

“We are seeing enormous change,” he said. “That change will evolve into better content, better communication and better information as we have the capacity to do it. It will coexist with sleaze as it always has across history. But the beneficiary in the end is freedom of expression.”

Dennis said he started studying global media during the era of transatlantic cables, presumably harkening back to a time when foreign correspondents filed their stories and messages by telex over those cables to their editors back in the States. “And transatlantic cables still exist; no media ever go out of business, he said. “There’s always room somewhere for something.”

In a parable about the city of the future, written by TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, the centerpiece was a Museum of Failure, said Dennis. "But the Museum of Failure was so popular that it did, in fact, succeed -- thus failing. And that’s the story of global media.”

  • Claudia Leung, ’11, ’16 M.D., student, Feinberg School of Medicine

Leung said: “I first discovered a passion for global health during a medical anthropology class that I took as part of my global health minor as an undergrad at Northwestern. I was struck by the idea that health outcomes are not just a product of pathogens and disease, but also socioeconomic and cultural factors. That was something that I never thought about as a student before.

“These things that I learned in those classes really provided a background for me to want to experience those things for my self, to travel abroad. I traveled to Beijing as part of my global health minor and later took time off from school, and I volunteered as a health educator in rural China in a population of ethnic minority Chinese villagers,” she added.

“Those experiences turned out to be the formative basis of my decision to pursue a career in medicine. And now, as a medical student, I have had the opportunity to work on a project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, looking at the management of chronic diseases in patients with HIV. 

“The experiences that I have had both in China and in Tanzania have very much shaped my understanding of global health,” Leung observed. “The experiential learning we get as students when we travel abroad takes you outside the classroom. It maps the things we learn in the lecture and classes to real people and real experiences.

“Through that you gain a deeper understanding of global health issues. It’s not just the perspective that is presented in a textbook or told to you, but it’s the perspective you hear from your host family and from the friends that you make,” she said.

“It changes the way that you think, and that’s what happened for me.”

  • Harvey Young, associate chair of theatre, School of Communication

President Schapiro posed a different question to Harvey Young and others, asking about the notion of preparing students as global citizens and the extraordinary emphasis that is put on the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Between the natural sciences, quantitative social sciences, engineering, that gets much of the action,” President Schapiro said. “But isn’t it interesting that certain countries, Singapore, China now, mainland China, are rediscovering the liberal arts, just as our country is pressured by politicians and others to move to more quantitative learning experiences?

“So, here’s my question. My general question is how do the arts, humanities and I would say the humanistic social sciences, what role do they play?” he asked. “So, reflect a little bit about how that produces global citizens at a school like Northwestern.”

Young replied that he wanted to “offer a vision, a perspective, on how the humanities can come together with social sciences to engage the global. I believe in immersive, on-the-ground, engaged learning that creates space for dialogue -- talking with one another and through the barriers of cultural difference.

“The measure of global citizenship or global literacy is not the number of stamps in a passport but whether a person can comprehend and begin to articulate the experiences of others, especially those whose day-to-day reality may differ from our own: people dealing with government censorship, facing threats of genocide, encountering legal barriers because of one’s gender, living in extreme poverty, or fearing that death could come from an easily curable disease,” he said.

“Studies in the arts and humanities equip students with the skills necessary to listen to and truly hear the stories of people’s lived reality. The arts supply the tools -- the critical methods -- to engage communities in meaningful exchange. The arts offer strategies for how to record and share those experiences or stories across a variety of media -- in writing, on a canvas or screen, within a musical score -- and to present those experiences to a wide, diverse audience,” Young said.

“I have seen a glimmer of the types of interdisciplinary, socially relevant projects that could be created through an expanded commitment to global literacy within the work of Northwestern students, both undergraduate and graduate.

“For example, a doctoral student in performance studies worked with incarcerated women in South Africa. She helped them to find their voice, to tell their stories through performance, and in so doing cast a spotlight on the devastating effects of gender-based discrimination as well as sexual violence on life outcomes. It was a project that merged African studies, gender studies, legal studies, sociology and, of course, theatre and performance studies,” Young explained.

“Another example,” he added: “An undergraduate alumna, only weeks after graduation, worked with a community theatre company in Thailand to create dramatic productions that educated audiences about human rights issues. Her work offers a compelling reminder of the broad reach and the dynamic social impact that the humanities can have.

“These are two examples of how the arts not only intersect with the social sciences and but also offer opportunities to nurture and champion a type of global citizenship that is engaged, present and responsive,” Young observed.

“The arts provide a means to enter communities in a respectful manner and to learn from the people who live there. The arts frame social issues for a potentially global audience. The arts create opportunities for a type of embodied experience that helps us to recognize our social and ethical obligations to one another. For these reasons, I am excited about the possibility of expanding global engagement initiatives. To promote global literacy is to widen the frame. It is to render more people, more stories, more experiences and more lived realities visible.”

  • Gary Saul Morson, a Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Weinberg

President Schapiro asked the interdisciplinary scholar how studying Tolstoy and Dostoevsky prepares people for the globalized the world.

Morson acknowledged that “You can hardly pick up a major publication now without reading about the humanities in decline. Nobody sees any need for them.”

Yet, he observed, “I think it is important to teach the humanities in such a way that they see the point. They are called the ‘humanities’ because they have the possibility of teaching us something about humanity -- by that I mean people who are different from ourselves. We all know what it is like to be ourselves. We grow up in a prison of self. We encounter people who are from the same social class, the same culture, who think in similar ways, and it is very hard to imagine that there are people who think differently.

“You naturally think that your own way of thinking and feeling is the only one, if not simply the best one, and that is natural. I have never heard anyone say, for instance, ‘Well, you only see things from my point of view, why don’t you see them from your own for a change?’ It doesn’t happen very often,” he said, prompting laughter in the audience.

“But one place where you can learn to see different points of views other than you own is in reading great literature, and in particular, great novels, which I teach,” he said.

“What is the experience of reading? If you read ‘Anna Karenina’ or ‘MiddleMarch’ for 800 pages, what are you doing in those 800 pages? You are identifying with people unlike yourself. Not just learning about them abstractly, but you are actually tracing their thought patterns. You get inside their head in a way that even in life we cannot do.

“And so you learn to see the world from the perspective of someone of a different gender, a different culture, a different social class, a different century, and you feel what that is like from within,” Morson explained. “Other disciplines can tell you that you ought to empathize with people unlike yourself, but great literature actually gives you practice in doing so. That is what the experience of reading great novels will do.

“It is the process of actually reading it (Tolstoy) and going through those feelings that does it for you,” he said. “What is true of Russian literature, which is already fairly far from the experience of our students, would be true if we could expand literature to a world point of view. What is it like to feel the world from the perspective of the great Chinese novels, of the Persian epic of kings and the great classics from around the world?

“People don’t know things like that. But if they did, it would help even more to grow outside a set of attitudes that they take for granted,” Morson said. “John Stuart Mill said that ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.’ To really understand even your own position, you have to understand what it is like to think differently. That is what really creates the feeling of dialogue and of listening to the experience of others. And that is what great literature really does.”

“You listen and you feel yourself into other points of view. And the more we could make that a global phenomenon,” he explained, bringing the discussion back to global issues, “the better literature could serve that purpose, which I think nothing else does. You need not only facts about the world, you need appreciation of others. You need good judgment.

“Judgment, by definition is that which you cannot reduce to a formula. You have to be able to acquire it by experience and reflecting on experience. By reading great literature, you graft the experience of other people onto yourself. Another thing that cannot be formalized is a moral compass, a sense of what is fundamentally decent, and some sense of what decency is is something you can learn from great literature,” he said.

“Literature ought to play a major role in developing the consciousness of tolerance, of dialogue, of listening.”

Morson used examples of how new global perspectives might benefit students, noting the different viewpoints that can enlighten Western thinkers when they examine the classical texts of Daoism. “We think that strong action is the way to solve problems. But in Daoism, the concept of non-action is often taken,” he said. “This is what the studying of other cultures  can do. We could learn to expand our own view as well.”

Moreover, he said, “I would love it to be possible for us to change our notion of what our feeling of comparative literature is like. Usually what it means now is European literatures plus the Bible.

“But why not re-conceive it as genuinely world literature?” he asked. “And then, not only would we be learning about literatures we really don’t study right now, but we could understand how people who are familiar with those literatures view our literatures. We could learn about ourselves from another point of view.”

Back to top