A Trip to Berkeley and the Tanner Lectures

July 7, 2014

I hope you and your families had a relaxing Fourth of July weekend. Marta and I were able to take a little break that included yesterday’s ball game at Fenway Park. As exciting as the World Cup has been, I am a baseball fan first …

We’ve also just returned from the University of California, Berkeley, which hosted the annual meeting of the trustees of the Tanner Lectures in Human Values. Presidents and their spouses from the universities that host Tanner lectures—Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and the Universities of Utah, Michigan, and California-Berkeley—attended the meeting to report on the lectures in 2013-2014, coordinate speakers for the coming year, and discuss common challenges at universities and colleges.  

At Yale, the Tanner lectures are hosted by the Whitney Humanities Center, and last year we were fortunate to hear from two quite different scholars: Paul Gilroy, from King’s College London, lectured on “The Black Atlantic and the Re-enchantment of Humanism: Suffering and Infrahumanity;” and Bruno Latour, from the Institut d’etudes politiques in Paris, reflected on “How Better to Register the Agency of Things.” Yale faculty members themselves have served as Tanner lecturers at the other universities, a singular honor. 

The O.C. Tanner Company, which creates employee appreciation programs and special gifts for organizations and firms all over the world (and has designed and manufactured Olympic medals, as well), built a foundation using company stock to support the lectures and the annually published book series that contains them. (You can also view many of the lectures here.)

You might wonder, why? 

Well, Obert C. Tanner, who founded the company in 1927 while putting himself through college (he started out by selling class rings and college pins from the trunk of his car), was deeply committed to moral philosophy and even taught philosophy and religious studies as a member of the University of Utah and Stanford University’s faculties. Throughout his life, he moved between teaching and scholarship, on the one hand, and building his company, on the other. And he tried hard to integrate a serious focus on human values in his approach to business, a legacy that continues to characterize this remarkable company. The purpose of the lectures, in Tanner’s words, is to “contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind,” and we are grateful at Yale to benefit from his foresight and generosity.  

Next year’s Tanner Lecturer at Yale will be Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago. A historian of South Asia, his intellectual interests cross the sciences and humanities, and I hope you will be able to join us when he visits.