Director of personal enrichment programs Margy Ligon is dedicated to making the U's brightest talents accessible to the public --
Long heralded as an affordable and convenient way to access many of the best and brightest minds the U (and even the world) has to offer, the College's personal enrichment offerings are a diverse palate of short courses, workshops, lectures, and events.
Featuring speakers and topics ranging from the historic to the slightly esoteric; from art and literature to science and nature; and from music and pop culture to politics and just about anything else you can find at the U, the programming is as varied as the interests of the audience attending.
For many people, personal enrichment programs like LearningLife short courses, Headliners, and Great Conversations are their main connection to the University, and the College is the face of the institution for them. Finding instructors and topics, coordinating and scheduling courses, and keeping participants coming back for more is no small task.
Serving as the backbone of the operation is Margy O'Neill Ligon. Energetic and effervescent, Ligon has been the College's director of personal enrichment programming for 11 years. And for a politically savvy art historian with a voracious reading habit covering everything from science and nature to fiction and poetry, there is no better place to be.
"I had spent almost 20 years as director of education at the Walker [Art Center], and was working as the executive director for the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library, when I was contacted to see if I'd serve on a search committee to fill a new position at the College of Continuing Education. I told them I was busy, but sure, I'd at least consider it and take a look at the materials.
"When I read the description and what the criteria were...my first thought was, 'Hey! I'm this person!'" Ligon smiles.
"I certainly wasn't looking to leave the library, but this was an amazing opportunity to work with a great group and to start something really special (Great Conversations). It was a chance to do a high-profile lecture series that could connect some of the great research that was going on at the University with the general public."
So, instead of serving on the search committee, Ligon applied for, and got, the position. Great Conversations rolled out two years later with Mark Yudof (then University president) and former student of his, political strategist Paul Begala, as the first speakers.
Says Ligon, "When we were setting up these conversations, we'd ask the faculty member, 'If you could talk to anyone in your field for an hour--who would it be?'"
She recalls her early thoughts, before the first night: "In THEORY it was a good idea, but would it work? Would it be compelling, as a public program?"
"Within five minutes of Mark and Paul getting on the stage (in their cowboy boots), it was clear it worked. It truly was a 'great conversation'--so fast and witty, and it was obvious they had a deep mutual respect and admiration for each other, personally and professionally."
While the formats for the different programs and offerings vary, the core mission of connecting the University of Minnesota to the public has never wavered. "In Great Conversations alone, we've talked about global economics and African American history and architecture and human rights and politics and... it's all been fascinating," Ligon says.
She continues, "This University is home to so many people doing such interesting work--and people in the community want to know what they're doing. And if you can time it with, say, world events, or a national best-seller making waves, or a hot button social issue -- that connection is even more exciting."
If it's a thrill for the College's audience to hear Chris Osgood of the Suicide Commandos speak and perform, or to learn about cutting-edge stem cell research from one of the pioneers in the field, or to have a chance to ask questions to a former U.S. vice president, it's even more special to Ligon.
While she recognizes that "the dignitaries and high-profile people and outstanding academics are all real people, living real lives," she has been moved to be able to interact with many of them. She recalls a few highlights, "Oh, well, I've always had a political crush on Vice President Walter Mondale. And when Daniel Ellsberg came for a Great Conversations, it was an amazing chance to spend several days with one of my personal heroes.
"When Archbishop Desmond Tutu was here, we were all gathered backstage and the press was taking pictures of him with the U president, and with the dean, and with all the members of the Board of Regents, and he stopped and said 'I want a picture with Margy,' well... I absolutely treasure that photo."
For Ligon, it always comes back to a passion for connecting the general public with amazing stories and tremendous talents. "We're in a unique position here, to be able to serve as the public face of the U, as a gateway. And the fun part about being in the College of Continuing Education is we aren't limited to one discipline or area -- we can draw on the best the University has to offer. There's really nothing else like it in town."