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Welcome Back: Thousands Return for Alumni Weekend

Zinn Lecture: Bill Moyers speaks of nation’s “plutocracy”


BU welcomed thousands of alumni back to campus last weekend, singling out some for awards, but celebrating all who attended.

In addition to the presentation of the Distinguished Alumni Awards, the highest honor the University confers on its graduates, the weekend featured the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture, delivered by veteran journalist Bill Moyers. The event, which drew some 400 people to the George Sherman Union on Friday night, was the first lecture following the death in January of Zinn, the political activist and author who taught for 24 years in the College of Arts & Sciences political science department.

Moyers spoke movingly of Zinn, noting that he had interviewed the activist for his PBS show, Bill Moyers’ Journal, just a month before his death. “For Howard,” Moyers said, “democracy was one great public fight, and everyone could get in on it.”

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Citing Zinn as his inspiration, Moyers focused on the challenges facing democracy. In an address lasting well over an hour, he spoke of “the two Americas” that define the country. He decried what he says has been a 30-year trend toward plutocracy, where the rich get richer at the expense of the average citizen, where a “buoyant Wall Street” exists alongside a “doleful Main Street,” and where government has been “bought off” by industries and corporate titans who “have ensured that government does their bidding.”

The Emmy– and Peabody Award–winning broadcaster noted that “a fraction of people at the top—less than one percent—now earn more than the bottom 120 million Americans.” He said that “for millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope.” And, he warned, “plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy, too long tolerated, puts democracy on the chopping block.”

Moyers laid much of the blame for the rise in plutocracy to the use of secret slush funds by companies and interest groups. “Money from secret sources,” he said, “is poisoning the public mind” with a campaign of misinformation. “Millions of Americans are in trouble. Why isn’t the government working for them? Because it’s been bought off.” Until we get clean campaign money, he said, “you can kiss good-bye a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Despite the serious subject of the lecture, Moyers punctuated many of his points with humor. Toward the end of the evening, returning to his old friend Zinn, Moyers said, “I can hear Howard asking us, “What are we going to do? Organize!” A knowing laugh erupted from a room filled with former Zinn students and colleagues. 

Moyers concluded on a note of optimism. He spoke of the number of young people who are, in fact, organizing across the country for more transparency in government. He pointed to organizations like freespeechforpeople.org and moveon.org as evidence of a new grass-roots movement. “There is a rumbling in the land,” he said. “By taking on big money, we’re talking about taking on more than a single grass-roots issue. I’m talking about restoring American democracy.”

Saluting alumni

On Saturday, the University celebrated the achievements of four alumni during the 64th annual Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony.

“The work you do in your professions, your accomplishments, and your contributions to your communities and society all reflect back on your school,” said President Robert A. Brown. “We take pride in the accomplishments of our alumni, and it’s a special pleasure each year to place a focus on some outstanding individuals.”

Three alumni received Distinguished Alumni Awards: Roger Dorf (ENG’70), retired vice president of Cisco Systems; Christine Hunter (CAS’80, MED’80), a U.S. Navy rear admiral and deputy director of TRICARE Management Activity, which coordinates health care for military beneficiaries around the world; and Howard Koh (SPH’95), assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition, Parul Vadehra (COM’03) received a Young Alumni Award, and Ed Westerman (CGS’66, COM’68) received a Boston University Alumni Association Lifetime Volunteer Service Award. Westerman serves on several nonprofit boards as well as the College of General Studies Alumni Board and the Boston University Alumni Council Executive Board. He also is cochair of the University’s Global Day of Service.

Individual schools and colleges also presented alumni awards at receptions and dinners throughout the weekend.

Dorf, a member of the College of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council, retired from Cisco Systems in 2009. He was appointed vice president in December 2007, when the company acquired Navini Networks, where he had been president and CEO.

Dorf said he had been working in manufacturing engineering at IBM in Rochester, Minn., 41 years ago when he had the opportunity to enter the Master of Engineering program at ENG. “Probably the most important thing that I got during that period was an inspiration and a feeling for entrepreneurship for small companies, for start-ups,” Dorf said. “At that point there were two great start-ups in this area, Data General and Digital Equipment. Those names have disappeared, but they did wonderful things for high-tech innovation and for the whole start-up environment.”

Hunter has been TRICARE deputy director since 2009. Previously, she was executive assistant to the U.S. Surgeon General, assumed command of Naval Hospital Bremerton in Washington state, and was chief of staff of the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Hunter said she is grateful for the things she learned at BU: critical thinking and problem-solving skills and the importance of lifelong learning. “That critical thinking skill has made the difference for me in so many situations,” she said. “I can’t imagine how I would have gotten through some of the problems—the chief of Naval Operations calling after the South Asian tsunami and saying, ‘We need to somehow partner with NGOs in the next five days and get a ship over there to help; can you work that out?’ I said, ‘In five days? Yes, sir.’ Because that’s what we say. And we did it.”

As assistant secretary for health, Koh is the senior public health advisor to the secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. Before that, he was the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health, associate dean for public health practice, and director of the division of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He was Massachusetts commissioner of public health from 1997 to 2003. Prior to becoming commissioner of public health, he was a professor at the BU Schools of Public Health and of Medicine for more than a decade.

Koh, a physican, said that caring for patients at Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center, set him on a journey to the field of public health. “When you see patients with such great need,” he said, “you also start thinking more broadly about all the dimensions that impact on a person’s health.” While a BU professor, he earned a master’s degree at SPH. “There’s a wonderful saying from Kierkegaard that you can only understand your life backwards, but you have to live it forwards,” said Koh. “This is one of those moments for me, when I can look backwards and understand the tremendous impact of Boston University on my life.”

Vadehra worked in public relations in Boston and in her native New Delhi before joining her husband’s family business, Vadehra Art Gallery, which promotes modern and contemporary Indian art. She also is a trustee of the family’s charity, Love & Care, which offers programs in health care, education, community development, and youth and female empowerment in more than 80 New Delhi slums.

Vadehra recalled that when she arrived at BU at 17, she was excited and nervous. The University, she said “urged me to twist, wrench, and expand my mind,” and she learned the importance of cooperation and education. “I believe it is education that will be the most powerful tool to foster real change and betterment,” she said.

Having a ball

The weekend also featured the President’s Panel, hosted by President Robert A. Brown, titled Challenges of Healthcare—Perspectives on Our Future, as well as Alumni College classes, open houses, campus tours, and a party for affinity groups, such as BU Bands, ROTC, the Community Service Center, resident assistants, and black, Latino, and LGBT alumni. Trolley buses shuttled alums up and down Comm Ave, and red and white balloons tied in strategic locations added a festive touch to the campus.

“The weekend has been tremendous,” said Steven A. Hall, associate vice president for alumni relations. “This is our third Alumni Weekend since we reengineered the traditional reunion program, inviting everyone back. We heard from our alumni: ‘Why do we have to wait and only come back every five years?’ So, we decided to invite them back here every year, and they’re coming back. Last year we had 3,000. This year we had about 4,000.”

Hall said plans are already under way for Alumni Weekend 2011, to be held October 28 to 30.

Steve Leonard (COM’77) was among more than 100 alumni at the lively affinity party, which took place Saturday at the College of General Studies. “I came back because it’s important to me to see people and reestablish relationships with people who went through the experience of Boston University with me,” said Leonard, who is treasurer of the Golden Decade Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by BU alums. (The golden decade refers to the 1970s, when large numbers of black and minority students entered predominantly white Boston-area colleges and universities.) Foundation members held their annual meeting over the weekend and hosted a reception on campus on Friday. “I’m having a ball,” Leonard said.

Elena Quattrone (SAR’08, SPH’09) attended Alumni Weekend to see old friends. As a BU student, she worked in the Student Activities Office, was a member of the Student Union executive board, and served as a resident assistant and cochair of the Senior Class Gift Campaign. “It’s a good opportunity to reconnect with a lot of people,” Quattrone said. “I love BU.”

Click here to watch Bill Moyers’ Zinn lecture.

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu. John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu. Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.


One Comment on Welcome Back: Thousands Return for Alumni Weekend

  • Francine K. White on 11.01.2010 at 5:03 pm

    A Perfect Fall Weekend @ BU

    The Alumni Relations Staff Really ordered up perfect weather for Alumni Weekend 2010! Walking up and down Comm. Ave was not the same as it was in 1977. There are more places to eat, newer buildings and thankfully, more benches (I walk much slower now …. lol). Thanks for a great weekend, and thanks to the Golden Decade Foundation(GDF) for enticing me to come and celebrate our BU experience. I had a chance to meet Dean Coleman (SED). He was an EXCELLENT speaker. Based on his talk, I asked my son to consider BU as one of his choices for graduate school.

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