Willamette University

No Drive-By Speeches

The Dempsey Environmental Lecture Series turns 10

Leigh Bernacchi ’04

Leigh Bernacchi ’04 says that the Dempsey Environmental Lecture Series changed the course of her life, and she has evidence.

The environmental science major is conducting research for a doctoral dissertation on conservation and the endangered whooping crane through the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Science at Texas A&M University; before that, she completed a master’s in nature writing because she believes stories change people. “I stem from the Dempseys’ branch,” she says.

Bernacchi’s spark was lit while participating in the Dempsey series at Willamette. Active since 2001, the series has come to symbolize the conversation on campus about environmental sustainability, green movements and how these things intersect with politics and policy. Organizers say it brings important speakers to campus not so they can have the final word, but so they can start a conversation.

“The keynote speakers are all different,” Bernacchi says, “but they tend to be comfortable working at the nexus of science and policy. There is a lot of creative capacity there.”

Case in point is author Terry Tempest Williams, Willamette’s guest in 2005, whom Bernacchi remembers as “a force — she’s an eponymous storm of words and ideas. She declares the democratic method as the way toward ecological ends. If not for her, I would not understand the political power of the personal narrative.”

Bernacchi continues to build her own narrative. So inspired by Williams, she studied under the writer at the University of Utah after graduating from Willamette. Now Bernacchi is preparing to present at the prestigious International Conference for Conservation Biology, a group that was started by 2003 Dempsey keynote speaker Michael Soulé.

Her success is no surprise to Professor Joe Bowersox, who also straddles the line between politics and science. Bowersox holds the Dempsey Chair for Environmental Policy and Politics, a position that enables him to help steer Willamette’s curricular integration of these fields and issues. He saw Bernacchi find her purpose, and he intends for there to be more like her. The Dempsey Environmental Lecture Series, he says, is part of the process.

“We don’t want this to be a drive-by lecture series,” he says. “Lecturers spend meaningful time with students before the main address. We’re talking class time, lunch time, lab time.” Often local high school students are invited, not to mention legislators from across the street at the Oregon Capitol. Former Salem Mayor Janet Taylor has been known to join in as well.

“This model is very ‘Willamette,’” Bowersox says. “It can’t just be about education, though that’s primary. It’s about outreach, impact. These campus guests make a difference at Willamette and in Salem by the nature of their visits here.”

There are challenges, of course, particularly when the speakers are high-profile public figures. “I picked up Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the airport,” Bowersox remembers. “He was on his cell phone out of the arrival gate and stayed on it until we got to campus. We didn’t get to chat much.”

He ended up putting the phone down and spending some quality time with students, though.


About the Series and the Chair

The Dempsey Environmental Lecture Series completed its 10th year in 2011. Endowed with a gift from the Dempsey Foundation, with trustee Heather Dempsey ’97 it continues to elevate the sustainability conversation at Willamette.

The Dempsey chair, endowed in 2007, adds steady curricular weight to the lecture series’ periodic programming. As key parts of the Center for Sustainable Communities, both initiatives complement other programs that derive their funding from myriad alumni gifts and sources.

Part of the idea behind the Dempsey programs was to bolster Willamette’s national visibility. By 2010, the university had been recognized as first in the nation for sustainable activities.

To learn more, visit willamette.edu/events/dempsey_lecture.


Dempsey Lecture Series

James Hansen, climatologist

Fossil fuel extraction is expanding at the same time that worries about climate change and global energy imbalance escalate among researchers and citizens. James Hansen, a preeminent climatologist and pioneer in the study of Earth’s — and Venus’ — atmosphere, will explore how reducing fossil-fuel CO2 emissions today is economically sensible and can benefit all the life that occupies our planet, not just humans. Implicit in all of these discussions, Hansen says, are fundamental moral issues that today’s young people must confront as they come to understand an environmental tipping point that may already be passing us by.