Open VISIONS Forum – the University’s flagship cultural series, bringing the world’s newsmakers to our doors – opens its 18th season.

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.”

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