Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

October 3, 2017

Back from North Korea, Times Columnist Kristof Speaks at Cornell

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Fresh off of an assignment in North Korea, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof began a lecture at Cornell on Monday evening with a sigh of relief.

“I’m so glad to be here and not in Pyongyang right now,” said Kristof, who writes a weekly column for The New York Times.

Kristof had been touring North Korea’s capital and interviewing government officials with three other New York Times opinion writers.

Kristof said he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn ’81, have witnessed troubling human rights violations while on assignments around the world. Those trips led them to author two bestselling books — Half the Sky and A Path Appears — produce an accompanying PBS video series and more.

Kristof recounted a moment in the Hubei province of China in 1990 when he met a girl at the front gate of a school. The teachers, he said, were giving her “scraps of paper and pencils.”

That girl, Dai Manju, was the brightest girl in her school, Kristof said, adding that she was forced to drop out due to an outstanding debt of $13 in school fees.

Readers, after seeing Kristof’s article about her in The Times, sent donations that ultimately funded the girl’s education and installed a program that funded girls’ education for years.

“So many other girls who would’ve been working in the rice paddies or attending to goats ended up getting a great education in ways that didn’t just benefit them, but benefitted the entire community,” the columnist said.

Kristof said he and his wife observed that investing in girls’ education creates a “virtuous cycle” and that influenced the couple to continue their work.

Issues Kristof is most concerned about, he said, are investing in family planning, preventing sex trafficking, domestic violence and youth marriage.

Kristof said that his activist spirit has led him to not only write about problems, but attempt to identify and advocate for solutions.

The “empathy gap,” Kristof said, leads richer Americans to be less philanthropic.

“The most affluent 20 percent of Americans actually give less to charity as a percentage of incomes than the poorest 20 percent,” Kristof said. He attributed this disparity to socioeconomic “insolation” in communities.

“If you are poor in America, then everyday you confront people who are needier than you, and you help out,” Kristof said.

“In contrast, if you are among the most affluent 20 percent of Americans,” he said, poverty is “not something you confront everyday.”

The lecture on Monday evening was the Bronfenbrenner Centennial Lecture in honor of Prof. Urie Bronfenbrenner ’38, a pioneer of developmental psychology and an advocate for the welfare of families and children. Bronfenbrenner, who died in 2005, would have been 100 this past April.

Throughout his more than 50 years of teaching, Bronfenbrenner pioneered the field of developmental psychology and left a legacy at Cornell. The professor’s work led to the establishment of the federal Head Start program.

Kristof has traveled all over the world — from war-torn Darfur to authoritarian Pyongyang to the mercurial White House briefing room. Drawing on his travels and reporting, Kristof has written on issues of child maltreatment and gender inequality, domestically and internationally.

During a question and answer session, Kristof pointed out ways in which universities can improve public accessibility, calling on faculty to put less emphasis on publishing works for publication’s sake and encouraging the university to boost faculty ideological diversity.

“Some academic departments have become so liberal, with so few conservatives in them, that the conversation within those disciplines is further from where discussion in the country is,” Kristof said. “The disciplines would have more impact if there were more conservatives in them to have debates about these issues.”

This change would benefit the public role that universities play, Kristof said.

Kristof told the Cornell community to keep investing in and striving for change, even if the impact seems like “a drop in the bucket.”