UCLA receives $25 million gift to support humanities division and philosophy department

Students studying in Powell library

The gift will help the humanities division and philosophy department recruit and retain top faculty, and attract the most outstanding graduate students.

 

The UCLA College humanities division has received its largest ever gift — and one of the largest ever to any university philosophy department: $25 million in honor of two longtime UCLA faculty members.

Of the total, $20 million will support the philosophy department; the other $5 million will provide seed funding to create a planned $15 million endowment to provide financial support for graduate students in the humanities division.

Jordan Kaplan, his wife, Christine, and Jordan’s longtime business partner, Ken Panzer, made the gift in honor of Jordan’s parents, Renée and David Kaplan — each of whom has been a member of the UCLA faculty for almost 60 years — and to recognize his father’s contributions to the study of philosophy.

In recognition of the gift, UCLA’s Humanities Building will be renamed Renée and David Kaplan Hall.

“This extraordinary gift signals a new era for the humanities at UCLA and, in particular, for philosophy,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “It’s more important than ever to instill in our students the philosophical perspective that helps make sense of today’s complex societal challenges.”

Jordan Kaplan is the CEO and president of Douglas Emmett Inc., a real estate investment trust. David Kaplan is a renowned scholar of philosophical logic and the philosophy of language, and Renée Kaplan was a clinical professor of psychology and the director of training at UCLA Student Psychological Services. Both Renée and David earned doctorates at UCLA.

“We are proud to participate in UCLA’s Centennial Campaign and be able to meaningfully support Humanities and Philosophy, areas of study that we feel are particularly important now to the health of our modern society,” Jordan Kaplan said. “Our hope is that this gift will encourage others to recognize the importance of these departments and join us in providing them with very much needed support.”

The gift, the second largest made to the UCLA College during the ongoing Centennial Campaign for UCLA, comes two years after Renée, David, Jordan and Christine Kaplan donated funds to establish the Presidential Professor of Philosophy endowed chair.

The new gift will help the humanities division and philosophy department recruit and retain top faculty, and attract the most outstanding graduate students.

“We are deeply grateful for this inspirational gift from Christine and Jordan Kaplan and Ken Panzer,” said Scott Waugh, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost. “It demonstrates not only their commitment to advancing the excellence of the humanities and our study of philosophy, but also their confidence in UCLA’s academic mission as we enter our second century.”

The study of philosophy has been a cornerstone of the humanities at UCLA since the campus’ founding in 1919; an endowed chair in philosophy that was established in 1928 was the first in UCLA’s history. Among the department’s current faculty are recipients of Mellon and Guggenheim fellowships and National Science Foundation grants, and members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Council of Learned Societies. UCLA doctoral graduates in philosophy have gone on to teach at the most preeminent universities around the world.

“This gift will help make our department of philosophy the bellwether for departments of its kind around the world,” said David Schaberg, dean of the humanities division. “Especially valuable is the opportunity to build a $15 million endowment for graduate students in the humanities on the basis of the generous matching fund the gift creates.”

Professor Seana Shiffrin, chair of the philosophy department, said the gift will be transformative for the future of the department.

“Philosophical issues touch on every aspect of life — including issues about what sort of creatures we are and could become, what we can know of ourselves and others, how we should treat one another, whether we are capable of forming a better society and what that would look like, and the significance of our mortality,” she said. “A philosophy education introduces students to captivating ideas and perennial questions while imparting crucial skills of analysis, argumentation, clarity, and precision.

“In its capacity both to stimulate and to discipline the imagination, training in philosophy empowers students to enter any career, while enriching their entire lives by opening up new avenues of thought and fresh possibilities for living.”

The gift is part of the UCLA Centennial Campaign, which is scheduled to conclude in December 2019, during UCLA’s 100th anniversary year.

UCLA’s Bunche Center Launches New Arthur Ashe Legacy Website

Hundreds of videos, interviews, photos, articles and other resources related to the life of tennis legend and UCLA alumnus Arthur Ashe are now accessible via the Ralph J. Bunche Center at UCLA on its new Arthur Ashe Legacy website.

The website was migrated from the site of the former Arthur Ashe Learning Center (AALC), which transferred its activities to UCLA in October 2017.

Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, founded the AALC in 2008 to promote her late husband’s legacy and values.

Arthur Ashe at UCLA, 1965 (Hoover Photographic Collection, UCLA Library)

Visitors to the new website can read a brief biography of Ashe’s life and an excerpt from his book, A Hard Road to Glory, and watch archival video clips featuring Ashe and Moutousammy-Ashe. Educators can download activity books about Ashe for elementary and middle school students.

The website also retains hundreds of blog posts written by former AALC staff and other guests about topics such as civil rights, African-American leaders in sports, arts and the military, and historic events.

Along with the website, UCLA will acquire exhibit materials including photographsby Moutousammy-Ashe and artworks, and endow an Arthur Ashe scholarship to be awarded to students who exemplify the ideals Ashe displayed as a UCLA student.

Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia A. Turner said it is an honor for UCLA to become the guardian of Ashe’s legacy and that the new website ensures that Ashe’s life and achievements will live on, accessible to anyone around the world, at the alma mater he loved so much.

“This is a truly special moment for UCLA, and we are grateful to have been entrusted with Arthur Ashe’s towering legacy,” Turner said. “The scholarship and exhibit materials are tangible reminders of his transformative impact on the world.”

LEARNING HISTORY FROM HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS

 

At age 15, Ann Signett was surrounded by war. Every morning she would go out on her balcony and watch B-17 bombers as they flew over her hometown of Rome during World War II.

Knowing that German occupation meant death for his Jewish family, Signett’s father led them to the mountain village of Alvito, 100 miles away. There they were sheltered by a Catholic family for 10 months.

Signett’s story is just one of the personal histories shared with more than 100 students through UCLA’s student-run Bearing Witness program and the Fiat Lux seminar, “Bearing Witness: Interviewing Holocaust Survivors.”

Bearing Witness hosted four sessions at UCLA Hillel during which students met one-on-one with a group of 25 survivors. The students listen, learn, record and “bear witness” to the unique histories presented to them.

With every passing year, there is urgency on the part of survivors to get their message out. The oldest is 105 and the youngest is 76.

Signett, now 89 and surrounded by UCLA students, shared her story with the hope that it will never be forgotten.

“I survived because I was hidden,” she said. “But there are survivors who survived the death camps. I was never in a death camp. I was the lucky one.”

A group of 20 students learned more about the Holocaust as part of a Fiat Lux seminar taught by professor Todd Presner, who is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director at the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.

Presner has partnered with the Bearing Witness program for the last 10 years because he wants to engage students early in their academic careers. As part of his seminar, freshmen discuss historical issues and oral histories, and visit the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

“Several students, year after year, come back and talk about their experience,” he said. “It deepens their interest in history, their interest in social justice issues, and their interest in community engagement.”

Students stand with survivors

Nadine Avari, a freshman in the UCLA College and originally from Pakistan, was immediately drawn to the Fiat Lux course. It offered her the perfect opportunity to interact with and learn directly from Holocaust survivors.

Before coming to UCLA, Avari says she had neither experienced much diversity nor met anyone from the Jewish community.

“Many freshmen come from really small, closed communities with narrow viewpoints,” Avari said. “UCLA is a diverse campus and hearing about the survivors’ experiences is an opportunity for students to be open and experience cultural diversity.”

Now, after studying the Holocaust in Presner’s class and hearing survivors’ personal testimonies, Avari said she feels empowered to “bear witness” on their behalf.

“There are people who disagree that the Holocaust happened,” Avari said. “And I can say,

‘No, I heard it firsthand from someone who went through it.’ No one can argue with that.”

Carol Roth, 76, is the youngest of the survivors. While Roth calls herself the “baby” of the group, she says that as long as she is living, it’s her responsibility to both educate a new generation and fight Holocaust deniers.

With a shaky voice, Roth tells students of the day she was walking on the beach with her husband and saw a blimp in the sky that read, “The Holocaust never happened.”

“I started crying because it was ­horrendous,” said Roth, who is originally from Couillet, Belgium. “It’s real, believe me. My mother was arrested by Nazis on the bus only because she was Jewish. They took her to the concentration camp Auschwitz. She was never heard from again.”

Honoring a disappearing generation

Sonia Khrapkova, 80, and a native of Stalingrad, Russia (now Volgograd), is also a child survivor.

In one session with students, Khrapkova shared a sobering reality. “We will go, my generation,” Khrapkova said. “I’m 80 and soon there will be no people to talk to you.”

Although Khrapkova was 4 years old when the Germans arrived in Stalingrad, she tells students that she remembers details from 76 years ago “like it was yesterday.”

She recalled her family’s escape during the decisive Battle of Stalingrad.

“We put logs together, and we were on the Volga River,” Khrapkova said. “We were running and running. The pilots were flying above us; the river was burning; the city was so slippery from the blood.”

Senior Daniella Chernak, a communication major and co-chair of the Bearing Witness program, understands the importance of personally hearing stories from survivors like Khrapkova.

“We are the last generation to bear witness to survivor testimonials and stories firsthand,” Chernak said. “Day after day, week after week, survivors actively choose to relive the unimaginable hardships of their lives by sharing them with us.”

When Khrapkova continued her story, she spoke of fleeing to Kyrgyzstan and eventually Ukraine. It was there, in a small forest, that she witnessed Jewish parents and their children digging their own graves and being buried alive.

“I remember the earth looked like it was breathing,” said Khrapkova, whose family was fortunate enough to survive.

Khrapkova’s tragic memories have endured throughout the decades and are now in the hands of a new generation.

“Hearing survivor testimonial is a constant reminder that we cannot stand idly by while others face atrocities,” Chernak said. “The hundreds of students who participate each year leave the program more open-minded, knowledgeable and committed to stopping biased injustices.”

Today, Khrapkova says that Bearing Witness gives her hope that this period of history will not be forgotten and will live long after she is gone.

“These UCLA students brought back my faith in the future generation,” Khrapkova said. “I am proud.”

 

MOVING HOLLYWOOD BEYOND ‘BLACK PANTHER’

By Jessica Wolf

Two remarkable UCLA alums working in the film and television industries hope that Hollywood is leaping toward a “movement,” not just a “moment” when it comes to celebrating and investing in diversity.

As part of the recent launch of UCLA’s fifth annual Hollywood Diversity Report, Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, welcomed to campus Gina Prince-Bythewood and Felicia D. Henderson to talk about diversity issues in film and television.

Prince-Bythewood is writer-director of the award-winning 2000 film Love and Basketball as well as Beyond the Lights and The Secret Life of Bees. Her upcoming projects include a film adaptation of author Roxane Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State. Prince-Bythewood is also the first African-American woman to direct a major-studio superhero film, as she takes the helm of Sony’s Silver and Black, set in the Spider-Man universe.

Henderson is the creator and executive producer of the BET drama The Quad and co-executive producer of Netflix’s The Punisher. Her credits also include Fringe, Gossip Girl and the seminal Showtime series Soul Food. “We are seeing a change, but not consistent change,” Henderson said, pointing to the fact that 2013 was a banner year for filmmakers of color, but one that did not play out in the following years. “The more you see a success story like Black Panther, while you celebrate it, it also freaks you completely out, because you don’t want it to just be a moment.”

Henderson noted the powerful marketing and budget around Black Panther, and the ways in which stars like Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross got behind the film — even buying out theaters in neighborhoods so members of the black community could see it.

“How do you make it a consistent change or ‘normal’ to have such movies as opposed to a moment?” said Henderson to the audience of people from campus and the industry at the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center. “How do we do that so it’s a movement instead of a moment?”

Answering that question and others that seek to explain Hollywood’s slow progress toward gender and racial parity is what makes the Hollywood Diversity Report and its year-over-year tracking incredibly important, she said.

As this year’s Hollywood Diversity Report shows, white men still fill a majority of credited roles in front of and behind the camera. And their continued domination of executive suites has a major influence on what kind of projects get a green light, Prince-Bythewood said.

She shared her experience pitching An Untamed State to several studios. Prince-Bythewood is an award-winning writer and director, the book upon which the project is based is a critically acclaimed best-seller, and also attached to the project is a three-time Academy Award nominee, Michael De Luca. The book and film are a survival story about a Haitian-American woman who is abducted, tortured and raped as she is held for ransom.

Prince-Bythewood said the first three pitch meetings were to rooms of white men, who listened politely, but were clearly uninterested.

But there was a palpable difference in the tone of the meeting when she pitched to Fox Searchlight, where the decision makers were two women of color. They bought the project before the meeting was over.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Prince-Bythewood said. “They just got it. They just felt it in their souls. We’re ­passionate about this project, but they might even be more passionate about it. The people we are pitching to, who are sitting across from us, they are going to greenlight what they respond to.”

Inclusion riders

During her Oscar acceptance speech this year, Frances McDormand, star of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, called for the industry to use “inclusion riders,” contracts that would require film and ­television projects to aim for gender and racial parity both on screen and off.

This is something Henderson committed to 15 years ago with Soul Food, requiring that half of all the episode directors in the series be women.

“I got a call from the Directors Guild marveling that just by me doing that, the number of female directors in that year went up 75 percent,” Henderson said. “That should not be. Things should not be so dismal that one showrunner’s choices can make that big of a difference.”

Another UCLA alumna, Ava DuVernay, who directed this spring’s A Wrinkle in Time, has taken steps to increase representation behind the camera. The first African-American woman to helm a film with a budget of more than $100 million, DuVernay required all her department heads to be prepared to show proof that they had considered women and people of color for jobs. On her television show Queen Sugar, all the episodes have been directed by women.

Henderson observed that women and people of color are making more progress in television, pointing to Shonda Rhimes as an example. She said she hopes that film and television artists and producers embrace the creation of storylines and casting that specifically highlight the cultures, behaviors and belief systems of people of color.

Experience is at the center

Henderson said that for executives, the easiest way to show diversity is to hire some black people, which is one of the reasons numbers continue to improve for this segment of the population in Hollywood. But if all characters are written with homogenous behavior and attitudes, that’s not really diversity, she contended.

Despite Soul Food’s critical and popular success, Henderson said doors didn’t exactly fling open for her ideas.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just going to be able to pitch all kinds of stories about black folks; this is going to be amazing,’” she said. “And yet what I found literally for five years of trying to pitch things that had the black experience at the center of it was excuses for Soul Food’s success, rather than a desire to extend it. I got a lot of, ‘Well, it was cable so you could depend on language and nudity,’ as if my storytelling depended on those things, which is incredibly offensive.”

When asked for advice for students or aspiring artists, Prince-Bythewood said passion and stamina are key.

“Love and Basketball took a year and a half, every studio turned it down, and then with Beyond the Lights, everyone turned that down twice,” she said. “You will get a thousand ‘nos’ in this business so make sure you are passionate about the story you want to tell because that’s going to get you up off the floor and keep fighting.”

Henderson pointed out that for artists of color there is a different reality at play, especially when they are the only person of color in a room.

“I always tell my students, you do not have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do need to be the one who works the hardest,” she said. “Particularly for a person of color, just being as good as everyone else is not good enough.”

A sense of humor is critical, Henderson said. As the only African-American writer for The Punisher, all eyes often turn to her when discussing plotlines for the show’s only African-American character.

“I just pick up my cellphone and go, ‘hold on, I have to call the committee,’” she joked.

GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE

By Jessica Wolf

Modern Judeo-Christian rhetoric and imagery purport that Satan is an evil opponent to all that is good and godly — a literal opponent of God.

But that characterization doesn’t hold up

under critical scrutiny of the Bible, says Henry Ansgar Kelly, UCLA distinguished research professor of English and one of the world’s leading experts on Satan. His 2006 book Satan: A Biography was a top seller for Cambridge University Press.

His latest book, Satan in the Bible, God’s Minister of Justice, combs through all the relevant passages of the Old and New testaments, tracking evidence of stories of the devil we think we know. The early appearances of the word “satan,” when literally translated from Hebrew, simply mean “adversary.” None of the passages that use the word refer to an inherently evil spirit, Kelly said.

“A frequent assumption about Satan is not only that he is as bad as can be, but also that he has always been considered this bad,” Kelly said. “I have been researching and writing about the devil for over 50 years now, and have been making many of the same points without really being able to get across my main point, that no matter when we have heard about Satan and his nature and history, and activities, most them are not to be found in the Bible, where he is a much different person.”

Looking back through the Old and New testaments, Kelly said it becomes clear that Satan, no matter what we may think of him or imagine him to be now, was not originally presented as the implacable enemy of God, but rather God’s heavenly assistant in dealing with human beings.

As Kelly contends, Satan is more like an old-guard authority figure committed to the status quo and as such is an obstructer of social welfare or change — such as the ideas preached by Jesus. Satan is looking out for God’s interests and is distrustful of humans, but that doesn’t necessarily make him “evil” per se.

“In our government, he would correspond to the head of the Department of Justice, the attorney general,” Kelly said.

In his book, Kelly looks at the ways in which later interpretations of and additions to the Old and New testaments, as well as post-biblical texts — some from as late as the 10th century A.D. — led to an evolving image of Satan.

Questioning the identity of the serpent

Even the notion that Satan assumed the guise of a serpent to play a role in the Judeo-Christian idea of “original sin” when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden doesn’t hold up under a critical lens, Kelly said. While the story of Adam and Eve leads off the Book of Genesis, there is no reference to it in the rest of the Old Testament, which indicates that it was a late insertion. And in the original story there was certainly no connection of the serpent with Satan.

“I conclude that Satan was not associated with Adam until the second century A.D., when the Samaritan philosopher Justin Martyr identified him with the serpent,” Kelly said. “I like to say that Justin was a good Samaritan but a bad philosopher. He was also, more importantly, a bad linguist. The reason he was convinced that the serpent was Satan was that he believed Jesus said so.”

Kelly outlines that Martyr came to his conclusion by way of folk etymology. The Hebrew word “satan” had given way to Aramaic “satanah,” which in the Greek New Testament is rendered as “satanas.” Martyr thought that when Jesus named the devil “Satanas,” he was calling him “Satah Nahash,” which means “apostate serpent” in Hebrew.

Martyr found verification of this idea in the Book of Wisdom in the Greek Old Testament, which says that death entered the world through the envy of a devil (“diabolos”), but that text was referencing Cain, the first killer, who murdered his brother Abel.

Study of the Bible in school

Fostering research about religious ideals and practices is very important, since religion is such an integral aspect of human culture, said Kelly, who studied as a Jesuit in the 1960s. He has been teaching at UCLA for 50 years and said he is grateful for the existence of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion.

“One should think that studying and teaching about the Bible’s formation, content and influence would be a very big part of university education,” Kelly said, “but partially because of misguided ideas of the separation of church and state very few people are exposed to sophisticated examinations of the Bible, and most are left with childhood instruction or vague allusions they have picked up on their own.”

Christian and Jewish scholars tend to agree it’s best to read the Bible along with notes that explain the scholarship behind the text — something like the New Oxford Annotated Bible, he said.

“The Bible, and especially the New Testament, is arguably the most influential book in the whole of human history,” Kelly said. “But most people don’t have a clue about the huge amount of scholarship that has gone into explaining it.”

GENES IN SONGBIRDS HOLD CLUES ABOUT HUMAN SPEECH DISORDERS

By Stuart Wolpert

Insights into how songbirds learn to sing provide promising clues about human speech disorders and may lead to new ways of treating them, according to new research published in the journal eLife.

There are about 9,000 species of birds, about half of which are songbirds. When these birds sing, the activity of a master gene called FoxP2 declines in a key region of the brain involved in vocal control known as Area X. The decrease in FoxP2 produces changes in the activity of thousands of other genes.

FoxP2 also plays an important role in speech in humans. Stephanie White, a professor of integrative biology and physiology and senior author of the study, thinks FoxP2 and the changes it causes could be a part of the molecular basis for vocal ­learning. In both humans and birds, cells process this gene in a way that produces both a ­full-length protein and a shorter version of the protein. The long version regulates other genes; what the short version does remains a mystery. Humans with a mutation in the long version have problems with their speech.

To prevent this decline in Area X, White’s research team used methods similar to human gene therapy to insert a version of FoxP2 in male zebra finches. After doing so, when the birds sang, instead of their FoxP2 levels declining, the levels remained high. This uncoupling of FoxP2 levels from the birds’ singing impaired their song learning.

“In a sense, this may be the molecular version of ‘practice makes perfect,’ and why one needs to repeat motor skills over and over to learn them, rather than just having someone tell you,” White said.

New treatment possibilities for humans

Few treatments for language impairments have been developed, White said, because scientists have only a poor understanding of the molecular basis for vocal ­communication. The findings of this study could lead to the

creation of new treatments for speech

problems in people, including children with autism and people with mutated versions of FoxP2. White is interested in human behavior, but said humans are difficult to study at the cellular and synaptic level.

Through trial-and-error practice during a critical period, the birds develop a song ­suitable for courtship. Songbirds, much like in humans, have a critical period in youth when they are best at learning vocal communication skills. In birds, this is when they learn a song they will use later in life as a courtship song. In humans, this is when language skills are most easily learned. After this critical period ends, it is more difficult for people to learn languages, and for certain bird species to learn their songs. Male zebra finches learn to sing a courtship song from 35 to 100 days after hatching.

White and her colleagues set out to ­identify how FoxP2 affects thousands of other genes in zebra finches before and after the critical period for learning closes.

“We found sets of genes in young birds whose levels change when they sing, and are linked to learning,” said White, who is also a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. “These patterns disappear in older birds. Many of these genes are essential to human language development.”

New drugs could be next

The researchers found that applying methods similar to gene therapy to the long version of FoxP2 disrupted learning. To their surprise, applying the methods to the short version did not. Instead, it led to songs with less variability between renditions.

“We identified networks of genes involved in critical-period vocal learning, including human speech-related genes,” White said. “Pharmacologically targeting these pathways could lead to the development of new drugs to treat communication deficits in humans.”

The scientists studied thousands of genes in Area X that are an important part of the bird’s song circuitry. (Area X is located in the male finch’s basal ganglia, beneath the brain’s cortex.)

These genes in Area X change in a coordinated way, much like an orchestra being led by a conductor, with FoxP2 as the conductor, White said.

“It’s not that all the genes (or instrumentalists) became loud or became quiet; it’s that they change in a coordinated way,” White said. “We refer to these as ‘suites of genes,’ and one of these suites of genes is highly correlated to learning in young birds.”

The research was federally funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Co-authors are Xinshu Xiao, UCLA professor

of integrative biology and physiology; Zachary Burkett, a former member of White’s research team; Nancy Day, a postdoctoral scholar in White’s laboratory; Todd Kimball and Caitlin Aamodt, graduate students in White’s laboratory; Jonathan Heston, a former member of White’s research team; and Austin Hilliard, a former graduate student in White’s laboratory.