Distinguished Lecture Series

Laverne Cox

Photo by Jeff Miller

UW–Madison’s long-standing tradition of fearless sifting and winnowing is rekindled each year through the Distinguished Lecture Series, which since 1987 has hosted intellectual jousts and provocations. More than 200 speakers have appeared over the last three decades.

The roster includes the late Kurt Vonnegut, who was 80 years old when he spoke on campus in 2003. The Slaughterhouse-Five author managed to elicit both chuckles and contemplation from the crowd at the Wisconsin Union Theater, even through a coughing fit. With unruly hair and a craggy face, Vonnegut bounced across topics from his career to his desired epitaph, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

But students have not always welcomed these speakers with open arms. When the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly visited campus in 1993 to speak about the “liberal media” and feminist movement, about 80 students protested her views on abortion and family rights.

Speakers visit campus with messages both inspirational and timely. They’ve included astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who in 2009 lamented how “scientific illiteracy” has bred a fear of the unknown.

“Here we are in a country professing to be advanced technologically, but there are people among us afraid of the number 13,” he told the crowd.

Other speakers have included the late conservative political commentator Robert Novak, the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, former South African State President F. W. de Klerk, and Roman Catholic nun Helen Prejean, a leading advocate for abolition of the death penalty.

Most recently, transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox (pictured above), who plays Sophia on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, called out North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill and declared that “trans is beautiful” to a crowd of more than 1,300 in May 2016.

During a Valentine’s Day visit in 1990, the late poet Maya Angelou urged audience members to embrace courage, to dispel ignorance, and to take advantage of the opportunities created by their forebears. “This is your life — yours alone,” Angelou said. “So, in this time, make use of it.”

Published in the Winter 2016 issue

Tags: books, Science, Student life, television, Union

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