by Alan Bisbort
Dr. Philip Eliasoph, professor of Visual and Performing Arts, had an epiphany one winter’s night in 1995 on the Merritt Parkway.
He and his wife Yael, a lecturer in Italian in the Modern Languages and Literatures Department, were driving back from Manhattan after attending an event at the 92nd Street Y, a place Dr. Eliasoph called “New York’s premier hothouse of ideas.”
“Charlie Rose, Barbara Walters, and Jeff Greenfield had all been on stage that evening, speaking live and unedited,” Dr. Eliasoph recalled. “Near where we were seated, I was astonished to see Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Kissinger, and Anna Wintour all sitting there like rapt schoolchildren taking in the experience.”
Dr. Eliasoph realized how much he hungered for such stimulation closer to home. “Fairfield County residents will go to a Broadway play, but going to New York for a lecture is a bridge too far,” he said, adding, “This was not exactly Paul’s moment on the road to Damascus — just Philip’s moment on the Merritt.”
The solution arrived almost fully formed in his head: Bring 92nd Street Y-like events to Fairfield University.
When he got back to campus, he planted the seed for such a wide-open series with a white-paper proposal. Happily, his seed received the nourishment of the University and has since grown to be one of Fairfield’s signature institutions: the Open VISIONS Forum.
On Sept. 16, 2013, Dr. Eliasoph’s Merritt Parkway “moment” kicked off its 18th season with CBS News/60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft appearing before a full house at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts’ Kelley Theatre.
Kroft opened by acknowledging the Forum’s significance: “Your reputation precedes you,” he told the audience, citing 60 Minutes colleagues like Lesley Stahl and Byron Pitts, both of whom have appeared at earlier Forums and reported back to the offices of CBS with rave reviews about the Fairfield experience. Then he acknowledged something that has had connotations far beyond the world of television journalism — the generational divide.
“Most students I meet tell me, 60 Minutes is my parents’ or my grandparents’ favorite TV show,” he said, with a deadpan expression that drew laughter from the students in attendance.
He then offered students some hope, describing his less-than-stellar years at Syracuse University, where he said he embraced Mark Twain’s philosophy of “never letting your school interfere with your education.”
Kroft had burning ambitions to be an advertising man “like Don Draper,” but the military draft interrupted those plans, sending him to Vietnam in 1968. For the rest of the war, he followed in his future colleague Andy Rooney’s footsteps by working at the military newspaper Stars & Stripes. He eventually went back to get a master’s degree at Columbia School of Journalism, joining CBS News in 1980 and then 60 Minutes in 1985.
Being a journalist, Kroft said, is “like being a lawyer. You can be an advocate, defender, or an arbiter, but the goal is always the same — to do what Bill Moyers calls getting as close to a verifiable version of the truth as possible.”
Kroft’s appearance was in many ways a “classic” Open VISIONS Forum event. Something about the presence of students, combined with an informed local audience, seems to create an air of intelligent informality — major figures from the world of politics, the media, and the arts, seem to be able to speak from the heart.
Following Kroft in the current Open VISIONS season, which runs until April 2014, is a slate that includes New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, human rights activist Ronan Farrow, and geneticist and explorer Dr. Spencer Wells, and others.
Over the past 18 years, with a collaborative team of University staff, Dr. Eliasoph has brought a similarly eclectic assortment of experts, newsmakers, and public figures to the Forum — so many, in fact, that he finds it challenging to single out the highlights. Of course, newsmakers like Benazir Bhutto, former Pakistani prime minister, spring to mind first.
“After 9/11, I was searching for moderate Muslim voices, and was lucky enough to get Benazir Bhutto to appear in September 2002,” he said. “She was brilliant, with that Oxford-educated voice. It was an international news event, too, with correspondents from India and Pakistan here and Fairfield’s name in front of millions of people on the Internet. It was exciting.”
Similar fortuitous timing attached to Frank McCourt who, earlier in the week he was scheduled to appear, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes. More hot buttons were pushed by “outed” CIA agent Valerie Plame and her husband former ambassador Joseph Wilson in 2007, Bill O’Reilly in 2006, and by Arianna Huffington who arrived in 2005 like a hurricane on the heels of her book Pigs at the Trough.
“Arianna warned the audience then that Wall Street was rigged,” said Dr. Eliasoph. “Three years later when Lehman Brothers fell, I could only say, ‘Remember what Arianna said…she was right’.”
The tried-and-true format of a Forum event breaks down, roughly, into three parts. The first part, about 40 minutes, allows the guest the chance to have his or her say. The second part is the transition to a panel discussion, when the moderator (usually Dr. Eliasoph) and panel go deeper into the issues raised by the guest, who is pulled into the discussion. “We’re not here to gawk at celebrities,” Dr. Eliasoph insisted.
“We end with rapid-fire questions from the audience, as many as we can take,” he said.
A real measure of the Forum’s stellar reputation is how it has “opened the gates” of the University to the surrounding community. Dr. Eliasoph estimates that of the 740 seats in the Kelley Theatre, where most Forums take place, 300 are full-season subscribers from the community, another 200 are single-ticket buyers for a specific event, and 240 more are students, faculty, and University staff.
This season, Dr. Michael Serazio, assistant professor of communications, was appointed deputy director of Open VISIONS Forum. Dr. Serazio helps lead the new Open VISIONS Forum-Espresso series, which is done on a smaller, more timely scale than the main stage events. Some will combine simulcasts (or “livestreaming”) from the 92nd Street Y, followed by town hall-style discussions with Fairfield faculty and local experts. These events are also open to the public.
Why, one might ask, is a Ph.D. scholar of American art whose specialty is magic realist painting of the mid-20th century, on stage grilling David Brooks, Steve Kroft, or Arianna Huffington?
Dr. Eliasoph insists that Open VISIONS is all of a “seamless” piece with his career, which has been dedicated to “connectedness” and “lifelong learning.”
Long before he started the Forum, Dr.Eliasoph — who began teaching at Fairfield in 1975 and was tenured in 1979 — had been staging events like the Forum in his classrooms, in town hall-style campus events, and as part of the Judaic Studies lecture series.
Dr. Eliasoph also knew that the University should engage as much as possible with the community. He learned this firsthand during the 1980s when he began taking alumni and“lifetime learners” from the area on tours of Italy. He and his wife, whose family is from Florence, lead an art discovery tour every spring and he estimates that, over the years, they’ve taken more than 2,000 people to Europe.
“Here was a Jewish professor with an Israeli-Italian wife teaching at ‘that Jesuit University,’ taking all these people on these tours,” he recalled. “Our art tours to Italy created a comfort level for many of these lifelong learners who sort of squinted because they had no real connection to our insular Jesuit college back then…We really embraced an entirely new audience, which has become the seed of our loyal Open VISIONS Forum audience. I remember telling some of my travelers that I was going to start something like this and they all said, ‘Oh, we want to come.’”
Something progressive Jews are taught is Tikkun Olam [literally “fix the world”] through Mitzrot [good deeds daily]. This is in keeping, in a way, with Fairfield’s emphasis on the Jesuit ethos of working for the “greater good.”
This sort of “connectedness” extends to his classroom where Dr. Eliasoph requires students to read one newspaper a day — what he calls their “daily intellectual vitamin.”
“Call me an archaic antiquarian,” he said. “The feel, the touch — tactile and visual — of the printed page will not be eclipsed by a computer screen. I teach American art history but in my methodology I do the social history of art, putting art in a social and cultural context. I see the world through a cultural gestalt. And that’s why I host a series like Open VISIONS.”