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Allen gives compelling town-gown lecture

Danielle Allen, a MacArthur Prize-winning political theorist, spoke at Lehigh Oct. 4.

Danielle Allen may not be entirely familiar with Lehigh University or the city of Bethlehem, but her understanding of the relationship that exists between both is clearly apparent.

Allen discussed the need for active ties between university and community in her Oct. 4 lecture entitled “University as Citizen?” Allen, who served as Dean of Humanities at the University of Chicago until this fall, developed strategies for strengthening relations between her home university and its ethnically diverse urban South Side community.

Today, Allen is on the faculty of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, but her experiences during her tenure in the South Side of Chicago offer valuable lessons for faculty, students and staff right here in Bethlehem’s South Side.

Allen’s lecture kicked off the Humanities Center’s 2007-2008 lecture series “New Bethlehem: Urban Utopias, Dystopias and Transformations.” The lecture was also hosted in part by Lehigh’s South Side Initiative which brings together the university community, the people of Bethlehem, government officials, experts and developers to learn about the Bethlehem Steel site plans and address the needs of the community.

Located on Chicago’s South Side in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Hyde Park, the University of Chicago had become secluded from the area surrounding it. “To live in the University of Chicago and Hyde Park is to live in two worlds,” said Allen. “It was hurting my capacity to be good at scholarship.”

Examining “university as citizen”

Allen took to exploring her community on her own, looking for ways to build institutional connections. She later worked with the University of Chicago to help strategize on bridging the gap between communities. Her work began with a thorough examination of the concept of “university,” its proper function in society and its role in a larger social and political context.

Determining a university’s place in its community, as well as within society as whole, is not a new challenge. As a classicist, Allen drew from examples of ancient Athens as an intellectual democracy. She also addressed town and gown issues from early institutions such as Bologna, Cambridge, and Oxford, where students desired to live apart from the rest of the world with political autonomy in fear of society’s threat to their interests and values.

“The historical record is full of examples of universities protecting their right to free inquiry and autonomy,” said Allen. “But when looking at the historical record, one begins to discern that universities have always been citizens. A university does have a role as citizen,” said Allen. “That’s fully compatible with its mission.”

But while the university has established its role as a citizen, it’s also the community that circulates valuable knowledge to a campus—even vital information such as how to survive in different economic conditions, or how to live in a bilingual community. “We all have knowledge useful to one another, but we weren’t sharing it,” she said of Chicago.

She cited “knowledge ghettos,” where race, language and economy limit the circulation of knowledge, as an obstacle to breaking down invisible gates between university and community.

While Allen’s lecture addressed the broader topic of “university as citizen,” Lehigh students and faculty quickly sought practical solutions on how to bridge the divide between their university and the surrounding Bethlehem community. “We need to be attentive to the concrete world surrounding us,” Allen said.

Allen suggested students take on citizenry roles and overlap their social circles, but noted that it requires consciousness raising, the broadening of conversations and the changing of habits. “I feel like there’s a huge divide,” said Deborah Ou-yang ’08, who attended Allen’s lecture and is also a Bethlehem native. “This is a good start and it helps provide awareness.”

--Tricia Long

Posted on Monday, October 08, 2007

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