Playful, Sober Seminars set Inaugural

November 19, 1999

Inside Tulane Staff

With its formal and funky processions, its speechmaking and music playing, its presentation of keys and gifts, its iced coffee and mile-high-pie socializing, the Sept. 24 inauguration of Scott S. Cowen, Tulane's 14th president, was an occasion long on stylish celebration. It also was a celebration of substance, however, and, perhaps, nowhere was that more evident than in a series of academic symposia given in the morning.

"In an inaugural event you want to look back and celebrate the contributions of the past as well as launch the future as manifested in the installment of a new president," said Martha Gilliland, provost and chair of the committee that planned the inaugural days academic component.

The three faculty presentations, which were loosely woven around the theme Rivers of Time and Cultures: Celebrating Tulane Scholarship and Achievement, offered a multidisciplinary prism to view the relationship of the university and its surrounding community.

"I wanted a theme where we could draw on all our disciplines," said Gilliland. "It came to everybody's mind that we should do something with the river and the region."

Rivers of Discovery: Louisiana Trace kicked off the academic presentations. On the written program, it loomed as the seminar most likely to wax tedious, promising a laundry list of historical scholars from three disciplines. Leader Jack Grubbs, professor of civil and environmental engineering, ensured the session was anything but boring, however, by designing an alternative format: a funny skit set at a hastily constructed Parasols Restaurant and Bar, modeled after the actual Irish Channel pub.

Band director John Dilkey provided a musical commentary, chiming in on trombone to evoke themes of college football, Mardi Gras royalty and New Orleans jazz. During the farce, Grubbs and his two colleagues, T.R. Kidder, associate professor of anthropology, and Peter Fos, associate professor of health systems managment, comically quibbled over whose discipline was more influential and relevant at Tulane, each recounting remarkable achievements by faculty and alumni in his own field.

One example given by Kidder was Clarence Webb (A&S 23, M 25), a well-known northwest Louisiana pediatrician who changed careers to become an archaeologist. Webb's groundbreaking work along the Red River and at Poverty Point, La., set him apart as more than just an amateur archeologist, said Kidder, who added that Webb's well-rounded interests were what liberal arts are all about. It was this theme of interdisciplinary work that finally united the three contentious barflies, who ultimately agreed that each discipline was interconnected to and enhanced by each other's progress.

With Scott Cowen-who in his inaugural address would later deliver a message about unity-within-diversity-in the audience, this was fine sentiment to begin a day of understanding both the vastness and the inter-relatedness of Tulane. Reflecting the serious nature of the day-to-day problems faced by many New Orleanians, the second seminar took on a more sober tone.

Rivers of Engagement: Building Community Partnerships was the title of a panel discussion led by Larry Powell, associate professor of history, and featuring Suzanne England, dean of the School of Social Work; Julie Jackson, assistant dean for public-interest programs at Tulane Law School; Michael Kelly, adjunct professor of architecture and urban studies and executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans; Chris Pencikowski, a senior in psychology and early childhood education; and Rob Roberts, clinical assistant professor of community health sciences.

In launching a discussion that would quickly and broadly cover several aspects of community service as well as community-based learning, Powell said, "Trying to build not only community partnerships but classrooms without walls is a project that entails risks, but the promise [of such work] outweighs the risk." England said that working in the community changes us by redefining the model of education.

"The usual model for education is that of professors as those who are in charge of learning," she said. "But in [the case of going into the community], we are learning from our environment, learning from our students."
"My life has changed in the last three years," agreed Pencikowski, whose classroom has extended off campus and out into the housing developments of New Orleans. "I came from a shopping mall suburb in Connecticut. I never had a chance to see poverty, to see people struggling to make it. I've now seen people in their own context and it's blown away the stereotypes that I was taught."

The profundity of that promise of change was, perhaps, best summed up by Roberts, who as director of Project Return works to integrate prison inmates back into society.

"People ask why I work with people in prison," he said. "It's because there is a connectedness there. A connection with other parts of the world, with poverty and sorrow that connects people at the deepest level. As imperfect human beings, it is the sharing of our failures, the sharing of ourselves that we metabolize into generosity and insignificance metabolizes into a life that matters."

The morning took an artful turn for the dramatic in the third session. Rivers of Reflection: A Tribute to the Living Arts brought together faculty from art, English, music, and theatre and dance to reflect on the role of the Mississippi River as metaphor, inspiration and source of the arts.

"The arts are rivers through which many things are reflected," said Lisa Jo Epstein, assistant professor of theatre and coordinator of the program, in her introduction. "After all, artists rediscover, recover, imagine, re-imagine and reconnect to the sources that inspire them."

Rebecca Mark, associate professor of English, led off the program with a reading of what she called her Louisiana Love Poems, a series of brief lyrics that grapple with the conflicting currents of Louisiana life-physical, emotional and spiritual.

Jeremy Jernegan, associate professor of art, followed Mark with a discussion of his nautically inspired sculpture, works that reference the physical imagery of shipping and river navigation for its striking iconography and rich metaphorical content.

Gayle Murchison, assistant professor of music, moved the discussion from the visual to the performing arts with a talk on influential jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, whose work is distinguished by its mix of musical forms.

Following Murchison were three performances that combined the talents of theatre and dance faculty and students in pieces choreographed by associate professors of dance Alice Pascal Escher, Barbara Hayley and Beverly Trask. The program culminated in a finale that comprised the entire company of actors and dancers.

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