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LectureHop: Two Dudes Shilling

Bwog’s intrepid LectureHopper, globetrotter, and gadabout Mark Hay was on hand last night for a lecture from George Rupp, a man until recently near and dear to our hearts. Rupp was there to discuss his current goings-on at the International Rescue Committee.

Ever wonder what happened to former Columbia University President George Rupp after he left in 2002? Neither did your correspondent – actually, I entertained the thought that President Lee Bollinger was an immortal spirit moving through the university’s lineage – that is until Rupp reappeared last night to deliver a lecture entitled “Local Conflicts as a Global Crisis.”

Your correspondent supposed that this event would be packed with fans of Rupp and moderator Professor Mark Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion. Your correspondent also assumed that such a conversation between two disciples of religion and education (Taylor and Rupp studied religion together at Harvard and Rupp is an ordained Presbyterian minister) might shed new light on what is for humanitarians, politicians, and economists the badly mangled and perpetually bludgeoned horse corpse of international conflict spillover. And in both these assumptions your correspondent was wrong.

The evening was less a lecture than a conversation between two old friends and a plug for Rupp’s current pet project – the International Rescue Committee ( – in front of an audience less of interested students than cordial colleagues. The evening was not without merit, exploring as it did occasionally the topics of decentralized aid structures and goals, local staffing, and for some reason the two men’s interpretations of Hegel and Kierkegaard. The insights were valued and the knowledge on both sides obviously ran deep. One just wishes that the two men could have devoted more time to exploring their unique vantages on aid in conflict zones. Amusing though it may be to hear old professors speak of growing up in “Jersey before Springsteen made it cool and Jersey Shore made it hot,” to quote Taylor, this is usually not what students attend lectures for.

When chummy back-slapping and recollections had run their course, though, the dialogue turned to a discussion of the IRC with Taylor playing the enthusiastic shill and Rupp the laconic, sagacious advocate. By calling Taylor a shill your correspondent does not wish to deny the merits of the IRC in any way. Indeed, Rupp’s description of an organization founded at the behest of Einstein to help resettle refugees across the world, devoid of connections to military apparatuses and almost fully (98%) locally staffed by members of refugee camps and local communities was enough to make any modern humanitarian pant with lust. But when he got into the lusty details of grassroots, village-level democratic organization formation to self-determine sustainable development projects eventually funded and run entirely locally, well every student of development in the room nearly had an altruistic orgasm.

The organization, as per the description of Rupp, sounds as if it is one of the few fully functional, durable organizations around, on top of that acting with integrity and consideration for local self-determination. Your correspondent almost wanted to drop his work and run off with Rupp then and there. And I would have if Rupp had not at the end of the lecture saluted SIPA with a fist-pump and encouraged all undergraduates to seek degrees in policy and development to better help his organization help … well, everyone. But still, I call Taylor a shill and the event rather bland as, though I loved the organization and the chitchat between old friends, I hate being captured under vague pretenses for an hour-long sales pitch.

Ironically, I will now make the appeal that everyone take the time to at least look up the IRC. Decentralized, independent, fast, expansive, locally staffed, and enduring, perhaps this organization can provide a decent model for less effective global aid institutions. Or at least spark an interest in the reader such as that it sparked in Taylor – enough to convene an hour-long ad. The take away lesson from this lecture? Never trust anything marketed as a conversation between old friends at their alma mater. They are probably trying to plug something – and even if it is the miracle cure to cancer, there is still a snake oil salesman feel to the whole affair.

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