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SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 4

SMU-logo2 I realized I never got around to writing about the rest of the events I attended during Commencement weekend (after writing Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), so here is a summary.

I started the "weekend", which started on Thursday, with a public event unrelated to the Honorary Degree Recipients Symposium. It was a talk about creating technology for social change, or how to make change by creating and sharing media, by MIT's Ethan Zuckerman. He mentioned, among many good points he made, Christopher Hayer's distinction between institutionalists and insurrectionists, with institutionalists believing that institutions are reformable and insurrectionists arguing that we need to fundamentally question those institutions. It is hard to motivate young people to vote if they identify as insurrectionists precisely because they don't trust institutions. Protest becomes a hard sell too. Zuckerman mentioned the book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci. Zuckerman also talked about laws, software code, social norms and markets as effective tools for social change. An example of norms was the "Black Lives Matter" movement and which type of photographs were at first selected by the media to depict Michael Brown. A fascinating part of Zuckerman's talk focused on "landscape mappers", visual tools to highlight what communities and media outlets were talking about. For instance, he had a slide about Ebola as a political issue, "Obama's fault", etc, and CDC was unwilling to talk about quarantine but it turned out to be central to the conversation. Another tidbit was that Zuckerman explained that people who think there's a link between autism and vaccines are very interested in science, but it turns out that they do science very badly. 

The next event I attended was the "Ice Fishing for Neutrinos" talk by UW-Madison Professor Francis Halzen, who received a Honorary Doctorate from SMU during Commencement Weekend. I loved this talk because Halzen made such an excellent presentation tailored to a lay audience that I could follow all the key concepts and understand why the work was important, although obviously the physics completely eluded me. I took a lot of notes but I'll spare myself the embarrassment of posting something wrong if I misread what I wrote, so I'll just say the idea is to create reactions in ultra-pure ice - the kind of ice that exists at the Amundsen Scott South Pole station - rather than water to observe neutrinos, which can't be seen directly and have no charge. The only way to "see" them is to have them crash into the nucleus of an atom to initiate a reaction. The IceCube experiment was awarded PhysicsWorld's "Breakthrough of the Year 2013", after the researchers published in Science the first evidence for a very high-energy astrophysical neutrino flux. Funnily enough, Halzen was hosted by two SMU profs with whom I share a good friend (no Texas connection), and we had only met in person earlier that same week. 

The next day, I went to the Q&A with Dallas philanthropy powerhouse Nancy Nasher, who also received a Honorary Doctorate from SMU that weekend. She is well known locally for the Nasher Sculpture Center, which was started by her parents and helped revitalize the Dallas arts district (she is also known nationally for her philanthropy to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University), and she is a co-owner of NorthPark Center, one of the largest malls in America. She worked on it as a lawyer in the late 1970s, writing and negotiating leases. In the mid-1990s, Nasher and her husband acquired NorthPark and then the ground lease, and then they planned and oversaw the extension of the center. It is the 4th highest-grossing shopping center in the U.S. and the 2nd tourist attraction in Texas (1st in North Texas). What I love most about NorthPark Center is the abundance of top quality art on display in the public spaces. NorthPark is also a performing arts venue with 300 performing groups per year, including 200 in the 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. Nasher has been deliberate in her intent to use NorthPark as a venue to support performing arts organizations vital to Texas. 

In her opinion, the most pressing need in Dallas for arts is that Dallas needs more corporate support. Arts education is also vitally important, and needs more funding too. NorthPark has also launched "50 days of giving", about giving back to 50 nonprofits in the Dallas area. It also has a program where it provides transportation from Uplift schools to NorthPark to teach schoolteachers more about arts education, and help teachers decide how best to teach the material. She also mentioned the Business Council for the Arts, which was launched by her father and which develops support for the arts from business.

Nasher also talked about her career path - at Princeton she wanted to be a Russian literature major (I would've wanted to be one too!), was an English major, took a lot of courses in art history, her father suggested she would be a good lawyer, which is how she went to Duke for law school, where she was one of only 20 women, out of a class of 125. She was also in one of the first classes of women at Princeton. She interned at a law firm that put her on the NorthPark project from day one. Later that firm offered her a job. She only stopped when her mother became very ill and she went into business to help. Nancy Nasher is a very inspiring figure in Dallas and in hindsight, it stuns me that SMU didn't give her a Honorary Doctorate a long time ago. One thing I love about Dallas is how the most successful people so generously give back to the communities where they grew up. 

I can't wait to hear who next year's Commencement speaker and Honorary Degree recipients are going to be!


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