In defense of Kinzer: keep good professors despite the recession

    Dear Weinberg Dean Mangelsdorf:

    Word is beginning to spread around campus that Stephen Kinzer, one of Northwestern’s most prized professors, may be on his way out. He has recently been informed that his contract probably will not be renewed. While I am not prepared to question the university’s extraordinarily difficult financial circumstances, I feel compelled to speak out before we lose one of Northwestern’s most dynamic and engaging instructors.

    As a prolific author, rockstar professor and gracious adviser, there is little doubt that Kinzer is an intellectual, financial and personal asset to Northwestern. He is the author of six popular books on U.S. foreign policy and a former New York Times bureau chief on multiple continents. He continues to write columns for a variety of periodicals including The Guardian newspaper. He is considered the foremost expert on the history of CIA intervention, having written entire books on the Guatemalan and Iranian overthrows, respectively.

    One morning last year, I turned on National Public Radio in my dorm room and heard Kinzer’s familiar voice arguing passionately against the prospect of US aggression toward Iran. I walked by him a few days later in the political science department and mentioned that I heard him on the radio. “Didn’t you have anything better to do?” he responded with a smile. Kinzer’s forthcoming book on US foreign policy and continued public presence can only help Northwestern’s political science and journalism programs raise their profiles and attract new talent.

    As a professor, Kinzer is second to none. His class, American Intervention Abroad, was expanded from a small seminar to a medium-sized lecture. His lectures tell the story of historical memory, weaving hilarious anecdotes through lessons of American arrogance and prescriptions for future policymakers. Students relish in the 90 minutes of afternoon storytime as Kinzer’s hands passionately flail, recounting, from memory, the details of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega’s last minutes. The story packs the richness of a History Channel documentary with the punch of American Gangster.

    This quarter alone, Kinzer is teaching three classes including a niche seminar on Middle Eastern political leadership and a journalism course on book writing. In addition to his extensive teaching responsibilities, Kinzer has found time to organize multiple lecture series that feature activists and leaders from around the world.

    While Northwestern will undoubtedly miss Kinzer’s presence in the lecture hall, the classroom and on the radio, we will most of all miss his informal and often unnoticed presence. I am by no means close with Dr. Kinzer (though he has mentored several of my classmates), but he has nevertheless played a uniquely positive role in my college experience.

    A week ago, I walked out of a lecture with Kinzer and began to talk to him about his upcoming book. He shared with me how his ideas had evolved and what he was now preparing to argue. I responded with some comments and he excitedly engaged in a conversation about the merits of his argument and its implications. At the end, I asked Kinzer about returning to Northwestern. He expressed that he would love to, but the administration hadn’t renewed his contract.

    I left the conversation with two thoughts. First, isn’t college fantastic? Where else can a naive, inexperienced 20-year-old share thoughts on international politics with a best-selling author and expert in the field who has interviewed innumerable heads of state? The Stephen Kinzers of this campus fuel the dynamic intellectual exchange that makes the college learning experience so formative and inspiring.

    Second, why are we letting him go? He did not mention a reason for the administration’s refusal to renew his contract, only that he would return if asked. Without presuming any explanation for letting Kinzer go, let me be clear: Northwestern will lose much more than a famous lecturer if we let Professor Kinzer’s contract expire. We will lose a source of intellectual excitement and political passion: a mentor, leader and activist on campus.

    I kindly request that you renew Professor Kinzer’s contract so that the next generation of Northwestern students will have the opportunity to learn from the passion and knowledge that Kinzer so graciously offers.

    Very truly yours,

    Ben Armstrong


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