Adolphus Arnot

24 Sep

The region in which Ohio University is located has a fascinating history.  From Adena earthworks to the development of the multi-racial community of Kilvert there is much to see and to know.  But the turning of September into October brings to mind a piece of history involving a fairly infamous* visitor to southeastern Ohio–Adolphus Arnot–or as he is better known, Aaron Burr.  Burr ended up having to use the pseudonym of Adolphus Arnot in 1812 because of a bit of trouble that he stirred up, in part, some 30 odd miles down the road at a place called Blennerhasset Island.

From Princeton to Valley Forge to the Vice Presidency to the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, Burr left his mark on the newly developing Republic.  But in 1805, after resigning from the Senate, he grew increasingly restless and began to engage in a series of conversations or “machinations,” as some would have it, around the subject of the fate of the west and the possibility of a second republic separate from the Atlantic states.  One of the individuals with whom Burr had a number of these conversations was an well-to-do Irish emigrant named Harmon Blennerhasset.  Blennerhasset lived in a fine mansion on an island in the Ohio River.  In September and October of 1805, he fatefully entertained Burr, both as a guest and as the purveyor of the idea of a new western empire.

In hindsight, it was not a good career move for either man.  Propelled by all the animus that Thomas Jefferson could muster, Burr ended up being tried for treason in 1807 with none other than Chief Justice John Marshall presiding.  He was acquitted, but was ever after haunted from pillar to post by his tarnished reputation and hunted by a cavalcade of creditors.  Hence the resort to pseudonyms.  Blennerhasset was forced to flee his island in 1806 and after being captured in 1807 was indicted in Richmond, Virginia for treason.  He remained in jail until the case against Burr collapsed.  Blennerhasset sold his island in 1807 and his grand house was destroyed by fire in 1811.

But the story did not end there.  In the 1970s, the state of West Virginia rebuilt the Blennerhasset mansion.  It is open to the public and well worth a visit.  If you want to catch the echoes of the conversations that Blennerhasset and Burr had some 205 years ago consider making your trip on one of the special event evenings on October 8 or 9 when the only light that will be shed will be candlelight.

*Woodrow Wilson said of Burr that he had “genius enough to have made him immortal, and unschooled passion enough to have made him infamous.”


What’s the Big Idea?

20 Sep

What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

Illustrators and scholars responded to this thought-provoking question in an anniversary issue of the The Chronicle Review (September 3, 2010).   Their answers include several commentaries on computer-based innovations that could threaten humanity, increase access and open cultures, or expand data for research and communication.  Other big ideas include the extinction of the middle class and the objective study of subjectivity.  Interdisciplinarity is the theme of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s essay arguing that meeting scholarly and public challenges may require abandoning disciplines so scholars can think beyond old boundaries.  I believe that significant interdisciplinary advances are possible when scholars collaborate across disciplines and are receptive to thinking and discussing ideas in ways that are informed by and enhanced by their relationships.  This does not require a scholar to leave behind the core discipline to engage in interdisciplinary work. I was surprised to see that globalization does not make it on the list of big ideas (although there are global implications of a number of the ideas that are identified).  I’m fascinated by an illustration that suggests energy is the big idea and attributes many of the pressing problems (e.g., wars, melting ice caps, international terrorism) to this source.   Others might reframe this big idea as the increasing focus on environmental issues and sustainability.

What big idea would you include?

Kennedy Museum’s “Asylum” Exhibit

19 Sep

A visit to the Kennedy Museum to see the exhibit “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals” by photographer Chris Payne is strongly recommended.  The large format photographs are the result of a six year project in which Payne set out to document the often massive institutions built during the nineteenth century to house and treat individuals with mental illnesses.  As Payne puts it on his web site:  “From 2002 to 2008, I visited seventy institutions in thirty states, photographing palatial exteriors designed by famous architects and crumbling interiors that appeared as if the occupants had just left. I also documented how the hospitals functioned as self-contained cities, where almost everything of necessity was produced on site: food, water, power, and even clothing and shoes. Since many of these places have been demolished, the photographs serves as their final, official record.”

Payne’s images are powerful–even when paging through them on his web site.  But that experience cannot match seeing them displayed in a large format in a building that once housed one of the institutions that Payne set out to document.  It’s quite a moving experience.

Gallery hours are posted on the Kennedy Museum web site.  The new Richland Ave. pedestrian walkway and underpass make a walk up to the Kennedy Museum easy and pleasant.  The number of photographs are such that they can easily be viewed in the course of a lunch hour.  Chris Payne will be giving a lecture at the Kennedy Museum on October 21 from 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.  A reception will follow from 7:00 – 8:00 p.m.  Both events are free and open to the public.

For Students

17 Sep

I’m thankful that all students are safe following last evening’s storms.  For those of you who live in residence halls or were in other campus buildings, your cooperation in following emergency instructions was critical.  The residence hall staffs, the Dean of Students Office, and the staff of Student Affairs worked hard to ensure student safety.  They did a great job.  I’m told by Vice President Smith and Dean Lombardi that they are working with the local Red Cross Chapter, and through the Campus Involvement Center will provide an opportunity for students and student organizations to support those in need.  If you  want to participate either as an individual or with a group, please contact the Dean of Students Office (593-1800).


I’m trying something different this quarter when it comes to communicating with students.  In the past, I would send out a monthly email in a rotation that also included the President, the Vice President for Student Affairs, and the President of Student Senate.  But it’s clear that email is not the preferred mode of communication for you (although DO check your email because it is still the preferred mode of communication for faculty).  By switching to a blog, I hope to make my contacts with students less formal and more interesting for you.  Please take a moment or two and look through the blog.  It is still in its infancy but if you have suggestions I would be happy to hear them (post a comment).

Maybe I can begin by explaining exactly what it is that I do, as provosts are typically not encountered outside the confines of universities.  My title “executive vice president and provost” is a bit of mouthful.  The reason why that is the case is that it attempts, however inelegantly, to signal that I have responsibilities for academic units (such as colleges and campuses) and support units (such as Institutional Equity, Institutional Research, Financial Aid, and Admissions, etc.).

My role is to help ensure that the university gives students every opportunity to reach their academic goals.  I care about the classrooms that you sit in, the labs that you work in, the library that you study in, the technology that helps you do your work, and the teaching and advising that you receive from faculty–just to name a few things.  I work on a daily basis with the President, the Vice Presidents, the Deans, Professors, and a significant cross-section of university staff to make these things the best that they can possibly be.

We know that when we do our jobs well that you will be able to go out into the world as artists, scientists, teachers, scholars, and professionals, and accomplish meaningful things.  Once that happens, then we get to be proud of you.  That’s the part that all of us love.

A Timely Reminder

17 Sep

On Saturday, the nation marked the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  It did so amidst a series of controversies that revived tensions and fed misunderstandings.  In the wake of recent events, I’ve asked my colleague, Brian Bridges, Vice Provost for Diversity, Access, and Equity to comment on some of the values that we hold as an institution.

Brian writes:

“I believe Ohio University is a very accepting community. Our campuses are diverse places. However, we know that Ohio University and its surroundings are not immune to issues that plague our society, especially when divergent ideals and perspectives come into play.

The intense discourse over religious differences leading up to the anniversary of the September 11 attacks brought a number of passionate voices to the fore, and, in some instances, created an environment that made those in our communities who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim feel unwelcome and vulnerable.

While free speech is valued, we must be proactive about countering messages and actions that threaten to taint our community. Intolerance for different perspectives or persons, be it in the form of racial, ethnic, homophobic, or religious slurs or threatening behavior, have no place here or anywhere in our society. I hope all members of Ohio University and the communities that we serve will join me in denouncing this type of conduct and in working for greater understanding and meaningful, civil interactions.”

Constitution Day

16 Sep

Friday, September 17 is Constitution Day.  Ohio University begins its celebration tonight and continues with additional activities targeted at students tomorrow (see, the Student Affairs website for more information).  There’s a lecture this evening to mark Constitution Day. Robert Rubin a noted Civil Rights attorney is going to talk about “Constitutional Interplay: Majoritarian Rule and Individual Rights.”  The talk will be in 145 Walter Hall from 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.

I asked my colleague Ann Fidler, who is trained as a legal historian, what book she might recommend to someone who is interested in learning more about our constitutional heritage.  Here’s what she had to say:  “I know that it is dated, but I’m still a big fan of Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality.  The power of the narrative he constructed is hard to beat.”  When pressed about her favorite legal history book, she confesses to having a fondness for A.W. Brian Simpson’s Cannibalism and the Common Law.  She says “This is one of those books that I wish I had written.  It concerns a famous nineteenth-century English case that you can debate endlessly.”

Innovation Explorations

11 Sep

I was interested to read about two new books on innovation in the New York Times last weekend (Nancy F. Koehn, “People and Places that Innovate“).   Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From:  A Natural History of Innovation argues that environments can either stifle or promote innovative ideas.  He articulates patterns for generating, combining, and reconstructing ideas and illustrates these patterns through narratives  from the natural sciences and technology.  The second book featured in the review is Peter Denning and Robert Dunham’s The Innovator’s Way:  Essential Practices for Successful Innovation and emphasizes the individual as the source of agency for new ideas.  These authors present practices for success and exercises for practicing the skills. Interesting books and ones that I need to add to my reading list.