March 10, 2004

Professors Give 'Last Lecture'

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Students gathered in a two-thirds filled Goldwin Smith’s Kaufman Auditorium yesterday for the annual Last Lecture series held by Cornell University’s chapter of the honor society Mortar Board. The event was comprised of lectures delivered by Prof. Robert Harris, Africana studies, vice provost for diversity and faculty development and Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. The professors delivered their lectures as if they were the last lectures of their respective academic careers.

Harris, whose lecture was entitled, “And Still I Rise: The Meaning of African American History in the 21st Century,” spoke about his career’s research, which examines the socioeconomic gap between black America and white America.

“My master’s thesis at Roosevelt University was titled, ‘Land for the Freedman during Reconstruction.’ One of the hypotheses that I had was that if only African Americans had received land, if only they had received that proverbial forty acres and a mule, then they would have been able to protect themselves, and that they would be able to hold on to the right that they gained during the reconstruction era,” Harris said.

This notion provided a foundation for his career’s research. Over time, however, the direction of that research evolved as other pertinent historical events arose.

“As I began to study this particular issue, I learned, of course, that it was a lot more complex than I thought it was,” he said.

“There were many African Americans who did become land owners after the Civil War. That still did not protect them from losing some of the fundament rights they had acquired. One of the reasons for this, of course, was the violence that took place across the country after the Civil War,” Harris said.

These facts led Harris to reevaluate the role of the Reconstruction era in general. “I’ve come to the conclusion, after looking at this over a period of time, that what we refer to as the Reconstruction era, was really not a reconstruction for African Americans, it was a reconstruction for the nation. The Reconstruction period after the war was really about preserving the union,” Harris said.

For many people the slavery in America before the Civil War is a main focus of attention, according to Harris. “One of the assumptions is that African Americans occupy an unequal position in the society primarily because of enslavement. To some extent the influences of enslavement have affected the black population in this country. But I don’t think we can look to enslavement to explain this current socioeconomic position of black people in the United States,” he said.

This understanding has led Harris to examine other causes of the division between races in America today. One such cause he has studied is the New Deal era. “I would suggest that Franklin Roosevelt was no friend of African Americans. He did not enforce the laws of the New Deal era. The skill level of African Americans was suppressed during the New Deal era. As a result, white Americans who had the advantage of those job training programs basically widened the gap between white America and black America,” Harris said.

Other issues Harris identified were the failure of the G.I. Bill to help African American veterans attend college, and the 1950’s legislation that promoted the development of expensive suburban areas outside major cities. These factors have both contributed to the widening gap between black and white America.

“Many of these, what we might refer to as structural issues, help to explain the socioeconomic position of black people in the United States,” Harris concluded.

Following Harris, Ehrenberg presented his lecture entitled, “What’s Important in Life.” He recounted stories about his teaching and research, his students and his wife and family. From those stories, he offered advice to students concerning the lessons he learned from his experiences.

Of all his personal accomplishments as an economist, Ehrenberg said he is most proud of his former students’ success.

“I was absolutely elated this year when a Ph.D. student of mine received tenure at the University of Michigan. Think of what that means, when a department that is better than your department, that never would hire you, hires one of your students,” he said.

In his personal life, Ehrenberg recounted an injury that prevented him from running, a passion he developed in his 30’s. While the incident left him depressed, he learned not to rely on a single activity in life. “Put in the jargon of an economist, we all should have a portfolio of interests in life rather than a single interest so that if we lose the ability to pursue one interest, we can still enjoy the others and also invest in new interests,” he said.

Much of Ehrenberg’s lecture concerned his oldest son, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor while studying at Cornell. “The doctors said to us that he would never see again, that the chemotherapy that they were going to give him would probably leave him totally deaf, and that the real question was whether he would still be alive in three months,” Ehrenberg recalled.

Ehrenberg’s son exceeded all expectations, however, and was able to finish his degree at Cornell before going on to Georgetown for law school. Now living in Washington, D.C., Ehrenberg and his son benefited from the advice of a family friend, who had also undergone significant medical difficulties in his life.

The friend said, “don’t compare yourself to what you were — because this will not bring you happiness. Don’t compare yourself to the people around you — because again this will not make you happy. Rather simply ask what can you do to make yourself and the people you care about — feel as fulfilled and happy as possible?”

In a continuation of the economics theme that came up repeatedly during his lecture, Ehrenberg added, “translated into the language of an economist, [he] was saying that our goal in life should be to maximize our utility functions subject to the constraints that we face — constraints which in his case were always shifting.”

Throughout the afternoon, Ehrenberg emphasized the importance of humor in his life. Humor has helped his son remain optimistic during his illness, and helps Ehrenberg be as effective a teacher as possible.

“Humor has also always been an in important part of my teaching style, because my students remain attentive to what I am saying because they don’t want to miss the next joke,” he said.

At the end of his lecture, Ehrenberg contemplated his immediate future. “Perhaps my final message to you is that the trite phrase that ‘nothing is certain in life other than death and taxes’ is a fairly accurate landmark of what your lives will be like. By all means make plans, but be prepared to regularly revise them,” he said.

Jon Overdevest ’04, vice-president of Mortar Board, said that overall he was impressed with the speakers. Overdevest said that it was especially interesting to note the “dichotomy between the two speakers.”

According to Overdevest, the lecture series has been in existence at Cornell since the 1930s with speakers selected on the basis of “strong interest [for them] among the undergraduate population” as well as their status as “prominent in their fields.”

Mortar Board is composed of about 20 members and has been at Cornell since the organization’s founding in 1918. Mortar Board is currently taking applications for the class of 2005, which are due
by Friday. Interested students should e-mail [email protected].

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo