CCE salutes outstanding unit directors Margy Ligon and Lori Graven
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, CCE's personal enrichment offerings are a diverse palate of short courses, workshops, lectures, and events.
Equally acclaimed, the College's conference services and program planning unit also specializes in connecting the U to the general public--albeit from a different angle--as it fosters lively collaborative development, facilitates gathering of communities of professionals, and encourages dissemination of expertise through a host of conferences, workshops, and other events every year.
This summer, CCE celebrates the careers and accomplishments of the heads of each unit--Margy Ligon in personal enrichment, and Lori Graven in conference services. Both Ligon and Graven will be retiring in June--each having left her distinctive stamp on some of the College's hallmark programming and offerings.
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 personal enrichment programming is as varied as the interests of the audience attending.
For many people, offerings like LearningLife short courses, Saturday Morning Seminars, Headliners, and Great Conversations are their main connection to the University--making the College the face of the institution for them. Finding instructors and topics for short courses, and coordinating and producing events that keep participants coming back for more is no small task.
But for the past 13 years it has been a labor of love for Margy O'Neill Ligon. Energetic and effervescent, Ligon became the College's first director of personal enrichment programming in 2000, following a 25-year career in arts and nonprofit management. And for a politically savvy art historian with a voracious reading habit, there has been no better place to be.
"Like many in my generation, I dropped out of college to go vagabonding. And since my real passion was art, when I traveled I made pilgrimages to the world's great art museums," she says, explaining her career path.
After more than a year on the road, she returned to Minneapolis for a short stay--or so she intended. Ligon started taking art history courses in the evenings and received a scholarship from what was then the Continuing Education and Extension. "I found the paperwork the other day and was shocked to see that my big scholarship was $238. It seems so insignificant now, but it changed my life."
With the scholarship came the possibility of a work-study job at the Walker Art Center--the beginning of a 20-year tenure there, culminating as its director of education. Following that, she served as executive director of The Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library, again working to create standout public programming.
Both roles taught her a valuable lesson: "When you are looking for a scholar to put a topic in its social or historical context, you turn to the University of Minnesota faculty." It instilled in her a deep appreciation for the U's role in the community, and so when an opening arose for a new position in the College of Continuing Education, she applied.
"I certainly wasn't looking to leave the library, but this was an amazing opportunity to return to my alma mater and to create a high-profile lecture series that would connect the general public with some of that great research going on at the U."
Great Conversations rolled out two years later with Mark Yudof (then University president) and a former law student of his, political strategist Paul Begala, as the first speakers.
Says Ligon, "When I was setting up these conversations, I'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 and Headliners alone, we've presented 100 fascinating public discussions on topics ranging from global economics and human rights, to environmental issues and biomedical research," Ligon says.
She continues, "This University is home to so many people doing such interesting work--and people in the community have clearly demonstrated that they want to know what's going on at their University. When you time it with world events, or a national best-seller making waves, or a hot-button social issue--that connection is even more exciting.
And, there are also personally meaningful moments, "When Seymour Hersh came for a Great Conversations with Vice President Walter Mondale and political science professor Larry Jacobs...that was an amazing chance to spend several days with one of my personal heroes."
Says Jacobs, who has worked with Ligon on several programs throughout the years, "Margy has an uncommon sense of who is working on research that will draw the interest of public audiences."
For Ligon, it always comes back to a passion for connecting stimulating ideas and the right scholar. I've had a charmed 40-year career thanks in large part to the limitless talent and generosity of University faculty who were always willing to share their knowledge with the public, no matter the time or venue. It's been an honor."
"But now," she concludes with a smile, "it's time to get back to traveling."
Lori Graven first came to the U both as a student and an employee in 1965, and in doing so, found a home away from home.
"In those first few years, I worked a number of jobs, including a position at the School of Public Affairs (now the Humphrey Institute). While I was there, one of the faculty members who was a policy analyst asked me to work on some projects with him. Later, he was working more in the U's central administration and asked me to come work for him in Morrill Hall, and I did."
While working as a statistician trainee, Graven discovered that although she liked the number crunching aspect of the job, and did well at it, she missed having a direct connection with people. "It was numbers and spreadsheets and data, and while that's a part of me...I needed the other half of my brain fulfilled, too."
So, in 1975, she took a program assistant position in CCE's Department of Conferences at the Nolte Center--and from there worked her way up to the role she holds today of department head. "The main thing that has kept me going in this work, in this job, is that it is really easy to sell education, and that's what we do.
"We create it in conference services/program planning with some very cool people. Being able to bring practitioners together with the faculty members keeps me engaged. There's been some moments where you get resistance from one group or the other, say the practitioners aren't necessarily interested in working with faculty because they thought they'd be too theory oriented, but we would find ways for them to see the value in working together. When you can make those connections...that's the fun part."
At some point or another, Graven says, she's had the experience of working with most every college and many departments across the University.
With offerings running the gamut from esoteric to outrageous, rock and roll to coherent multidimensional spectroscopy, after four decades of work Graven has seen a little bit of everything--including history in the making. In 1987, she organized a Warsaw, Poland, conference on religious tolerance that was funded partially by the United Nations and the Red Cross. "At that time, the Russian and Polish governments were truly trying to break down the barriers to religion in their countries, and we were being hosted by one of the Supreme Court justices from Poland.
"And while we were there doing this conference, the Polish legislature voted that there shall be tolerance among the people in Poland. It was a very exciting moment, unlike anything I've ever been a part of. A historic moment for everybody, really."
There have been scenic moments along the way, as well. Graven recalls a conference on adaptive sports as a means for helping persons with disabilities lead more active lives that was sponsored by the Norwegian government--and held on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship in the Caribbean.
And, of course, when you work in a program planning business, there is always the chance for a last-minute crisis to test your resolve--and ability to think on your feet. "One time, we had a speaker who was so excited, and so animated in his talk...and he ended up with nosebleed...but he just kept talking. We had to sort of gently usher him off stage," she laughs (ed. note: the speaker made a full recovery).
Continues Graven, "Once, we had a headlining speaker for a national conference who was supposed to go on at 8:30 a.m., only he wasn't there. A check with his secretary showed that 'sure, he's there. He flew in last night...he's at the Ramada, in Indianapolis.'"
A scramble to figure out options left Graven turning to the audience with apologies, "But one thing I've learned in this business--people genuinely want to help. You tell them the truth, and if they can do anything to help, there's a real wanting-to-take-care attitude. The afternoon speaker came in early, and in the meantime, we got the a.m. speaker to agree to call in and gave his content via the phone later in the day."
It's that ability to reach out to people, to connect, and to find a unique way to look at a problem, issue, or topic that has made Graven so good at what she does. She and her conference staff members must collaborate not only with U faculty, staff, and researchers, but also with industry professionals from the public sector.
Engineer Gene Soderbeck of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is a planning committee member for the Minnesota Water Resources Conference--just one of the many long-running annual conferences facilitated by the College. Her ability to bridge the gaps between industry and academics and get them to work together to produce outstanding programming is a valuable asset to the U, and the community, he believes.
"Lori--and her staff--are the best at what they do. University academic members have a handle on the research [angle]," Soderbeck says. "Whereas the public members can identify what's happening 'on the ground.' Collectively, the different perspectives provide a better understanding of the water resource issues. When you pair that with Lori and the College's proven administrative ability...it results in a positive experience for committee members, attendees, and presenters."
U faculty member Ted Galambos agrees. He has been on the planning committee for and a speaker in the Structural Engineering Series for many years. Producing an event that combines what is happening both in the academic world and the practicing world "is extremely important, for all parties," he says.
"The community is taking our graduates, and they deserve to know what they're getting, so to speak. And the U needs to know what the engineers on the outside are working on, what the current issues, concerns, and projects are.
"It's a two-way street. The U needs the public; the public needs the U. It really is a common community, and we need that connection."
And while creating that connection can sometimes be a challenge, it's one that has kept Graven interested and intrigued "What we do is selling education, and what's kept me going is it's really easy to sell education. Being able to work with very cool people to bring together practitioners and faculty? It's neat."
And while she's retiring, she's not leaving altogether. "I've already had a couple people around the U ask me to serve on their planning committees," she laughs. "And that will be great--I can't not do something with this place."