Throughout recent history, the words race and democracy have been used in ways that can either unite or divide–and they are becoming more polarizing than ever before. A quick Google search of headlines returns pages of results such as “Race Relations in America” and “Democracy Under Fire.” On Thursday, April 15 from 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm, WPI will take a deep dive into the many issues associated with those words as part of the University Lecture Series in an address delivered by Cornel West, titled “Race and Democracy.” Sponsored by the Office of the President, the series provides an annual forum for speakers of national and international importance to enhance scholarly and scientific learning and to stimulate the intellectual climate of the university and surrounding communities.
West, the author of 20 books including Race Matters and Democracy Matters, is described as a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual, American philosopher, political activist, and social critic. He is also an outspoken voice in politics and a frequent commentator on politics and social issues in many media outlets.
Provost Wole Soboyejo was one of West’s colleagues when both were on faculty at Princeton University. Soboyejo shared his thoughts about the importance of gaining a deeper understanding of these difficult issues, especially at a STEM institution, and how West’s lecture can help illuminate the issues.
The Herd (TH): Why were these topics and Cornel West chosen for this year’s lecture?
Wole Soboyejo (WS): If one really looks back over the last year at the kind of things that went on in America, I think most of us will agree that certain issues of democracy—where the very fundamental issues of the nature of our democratic freedoms—were questioned. And it was a year that, in my opinion, challenged all of us, no matter what side of the political spectrum we are on. Inviting Cornel as a public intellectual to talk about these issues is something that is timely and could also inform our thinking as we, as a community and particularly a STEM community, start thinking about issues of social justice and how we can be cognizant of those within the multicultural perspective.
Having worked with Cornel for a number of years at Princeton, one of the things I realized is that, as a philosopher, he can sit and discuss philosophy with the very best people in the world. But he's also somebody who thinks about the current society and racial justice and has been doing this for a long time.
TH: How can an examination of these issues impact our community and the type of education we provide at WPI?
WS: At this particular point in time, as we try to shape our views and create a path going forward, I think—at a university like WPI—we should be open to listening to other ideas that can inform our pathways and then look at ways in which we connect this to our mission in STEM. I actually think that one of the things that makes America strong is that we have this STEM environment that is welcoming to talent of all kinds.
I also think this is hugely important for project-based learning. By developing the timeless skills of how to work across cultures with people, with diverse ways of thinking, the more likely we are to train students who will be ready to make significant contributions. So this is really a key part of how we continue to leverage project-based learning by having groups of diverse people that represent multiple perspectives.
TH: What do you hope people take away from this year’s University Lecture?
WS: I really hope that people will listen and be touched not just by the thinking, but also by the feelings of others, such as the victims over multiple generations of unintended social injustice. WPI is a wonderful community. We intend always good things for each other, and I hope that we're an open place that will listen and try to understand from somebody who is a public intellectual that thinks about these things. And I hope that some of that will inform how we go forward as a community, how we do things in our classrooms and labs and offices, in our outreach, and in projects that can make a difference. And my hope is that we'll see through this that talent truly is everywhere.