Previous Lectures

The Cockefair Chair lecture series was developed to provide free presentations from the best minds to anyone who was interested in learning at UMKC and in the community.

Previous lectures have included such scholars and writers as painter and writer David Salle; choreographer, author and dance critic Wendy Perron and British administrator, broadcaster and writer Tony Jones. We try to bring the greatest minds of our age to Kansas City to provide insight and learning for our audience.

Reading from the new novel “The Topeka School” and interviewed by Angela Elam of New Letters on the Air

Featuring Ben Lerner

Ben LernerBen Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has received fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations and is the author of the internationally acclaimed novels Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and an essay, “The Hatred of Poetry.” His poetry collections include The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College. His newest novel, The Topeka School, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Oct. 1.


An Evening with Artist Carrie Mae Weems

Featuring: Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae WeemsThrough image and text, film and performance, and her many convenings with individuals across a multitude of disciplines, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Carrie Mae Weems has created a complex body of work that centers on her commitment to helping us better understand our present moment by examining our collective past.

Major solo exhibitions of Weems’ work include Carrie Mae Weems: The Museum Series, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2014), and Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, which was organized by the Frist Center and ended its run at the Guggenheim Museum.

Weems’ work can be viewed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City through Aug. 25, 2019 as part of the 30 Americans exhibition curating the American experience through the eyes of African-American artists.


Why Are You Telling Me This?

A Discussion About the Craft of Novels

Featuring: Meg Wolitzer

Meg WolitzerMeg Wolitzer is the New York Times best-selling author of the adult novels The Interestings, The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, The Wife, This is My Life and Sleepwalking. She is also the author of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, a novel about Scrabble for middle-grade readers, as well as the young adult novel, Belzhar. Her short fiction has been published in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She most recently published The Female Persuasion. Wolitzer often writes about the challenges facing aspiring artists and American gender politics through the decades. In her engaging lectures, she draws from the themes of her books, adding entertaining anecdotes and thoughtful insights into her craft and journey as a writer. A faculty member of the M.F.A. program at Stony Brook Southampton, Wolitzer was also a guest artist in the Princeton Atelier program at Princeton University in September 2013. She lives in New York City with her family.


Reducing the Risks of Climate Change and Ending Poverty: Synergies, Tradeoffs and the Hope for Sustainable Development

Featuring: Diana Liverman

Portrait of Diana LivermanDiana Liverman is an award-winning Regents Professor of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She studies climate justice, especially the interactions between climate vulnerability, adaptation and sustainable development. She was a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C” and is the rapporteur for the panel’s gender task force.

Her lecture will address questions inspired by the IPCC report: How can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate changes already underway and achieve development goals that include eradicating poverty and hunger, reducing inequality and ensuring access to energy, water and well-being for all?


Harry Partch and His 43-Tone Musical World

Featuring: Andrew Granade, Charles Corey and the UW Harry Partch Ensemble

Harry Partch (1901 – 1974) is one of the most inventive and influential American composers of the past century. Musically self-educated, Partch created his own theoretical system based on a 43-note scale and more than 40 new musical instruments to play in his system. His instruments are widely recognized for their structural and musical beauty.

UMKC is hosting a residency for nine performers of Partch’s compositions and a collection of Partch’s instruments in February. Over the past five years, Partch’s music has received increasing attention, making this residency extremely timely in the broader world of music.

At this event, UMKC musicology professor Andrew Granade and Charles Corey, director and curator of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium at the University of Washington, will present an exploration of Partch’s relationship to American music and culture and an examination of Partch’s instruments. A short concert by the UW Harry Partch Ensemble will follow.

Presenting Sponsor:

The Patricia and Howard Barr Institute for American Composition at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance

With additional support from:

Carolyn Benton Cockefair Chair
Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation
1900 Building: A Karbank Project

Henry Partch sits in front of glass sculptures


From Cold War to Hot Peace: Explaining our New Conflict with Russia

In 2008, when Michael McFaul was asked to leave his perch at Stanford and join an unlikely presidential campaign, he had no idea that he would find himself at the beating heart of one of today’s most contentious and consequential international relationships. As President Barack Obama’s adviser on Russian affairs, McFaul helped craft the United States’ policy known as “reset” that fostered new and unprecedented collaboration between the two countries. And then, as US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, he had a front-row seat when this fleeting, hopeful moment crumbled with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. McFaul combines history and memoir to tell the full story of US-Russia relations from the fall of the Soviet Union to the new rise of the hostile, paranoid Russian president.

Michael McFaul is Professor of Political Science, Director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is also an analyst for NBC News and a contributing columnist to the Washington Post. McFaul served for five years in the Obama administration, first as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House, and then as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation. He has authored several books, and he received his B.A. in International Relations and Slavic Languages and his M.A. in Soviet and East European Studies from Stanford University in 1986. As a Rhodes Scholar, he completed his D.Phil. in International Relations at Oxford University in 1991.


Portrait of Michael McFaul


Vision and Justice: Race, Citizenship and America

Can art today bring about the catalytic social change that it has in the past? What is the role of the artist in shifting our perceptions, shattering biases and creating the world we want? More than ever, we are inundated with images. Awash in them. Yet the artist alone has the power – through one iconic image, one profound gesture – to help focus our attention on what truly matters. In a bold new talk, Sarah Lewis made a lucid and original case for art as a lever to social justice and cultural transformation.

Sarah Lewis is an assistant professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, author of The Rise and guest-editor of Aperture‘s “Vision & Justice” issue. She has spoken on the TED main stage, at SXSW, appeared on Oprah’s “Power List,” served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee and been profiled in Vogue. She has held positions at Yale’s School of Art, the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Lewis’s essays have been published in Artforum and The Smithsonian, and her book on Frederick Douglass is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. She received her B.A. from Harvard, M.Phil from Oxford and Ph.D. from Yale.

Sarah Lewis stands in white suit in front of a statue

Photo by Kwesi Abbensetts


Former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest

Earnest draws on a decade of experience working alongside President Barack Obama on the campaign trail and in the White House. As President Obama’s press secretary from 2014-17, Earnest distinguished himself with a keen ability to marshal facts and construct persuasive arguments that earned him the respect of Washington insiders in both parties.

For nearly three years, Earnest spent an hour every day fielding questions from White House reporters. During our evening with him, Earnest answered your questions about the state of our country and our politics and why, even in the face of pervasive pessimism and division, he remains optimistic about our future.

Headshot of Josh Earnest


Adam Gopnik

The Cockefair Chair Speakers Committee invited The New Yorker staff writer and author, Adam Gopnik to present the November 2017 lecture.

Gopnik, an award-winning journalist, speaks with singular wit, eloquence and insight on modern life and culture. He has a rich trove of delightful stories and revealing observations about people and places and everyday life.

Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. He has a genius for bringing people and their ideas to life and for communicating the emotions behind their ideas, the feeling these ideas evoke in us and their relevance to modern life.

During Gopnik’s lecture, “Radical Liberalism: A Manifesto for a New Movement,” he talked about how liberalism has come into disrepute from the right as an “elite” ideology and from the left as a weak “centrist” one. Instead, he argued that the true liberal is a “radical of the real,” making genuine reforms rooted in argument and evidence.

Headshot of Adam Gopnik


The Hottest Fight in the Hottest Decade: Climate Change on the Edge of Hope and Despair

The Advisory Committee to the Carolyn Benton Cockefair Chair in Continuing Education, in partnership with The Land Institute, welcomed Bill McKibben, author and environmentalist, to UMKC on Friday, October 6th.

Bill McKibben is founder of the grassroots climate campaign and is the Schumann Distinguished professor in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is a 2014 recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the “alternative Nobel” and is a founding fellow of the Sanders Institute. He has written a dozen books about the environment, including his first, The End of Nature, published 25 years ago.

In light of the political climate and the ongoing surge of global activism, McKibben described where we are in the fight to end our reliance on fossil fuel. The talk was presented alongside photos from countless demonstrations and of the people working to protect our shared future.

From Monticello to Central Park to Our Back Yards: What Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are

The Fall Cockefair Luncheon on August 15, 2017, featured guest speaker Wade Graham, landscape designer, historian and writer.

Graham is the author of Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World andAmerican Eden:From Monticello to Central Park to Our Back Yards, What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are. He has designed gardens in California, Hawaii, Florida, and New York. Graham has also written on the environment, landscape, urbanism, and the arts for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times, Outside, and other publications. He has a Ph.D. in American History and teaches urban and environmental policy at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

During the Cockefair Luncheon, Graham explored what four hundred years of garden making in American reveals about our values, politics and dreams, and how our evolving relationship with nature in our gardens forms a unique window onto the continuing process of fashioning a national identity. Some gardens discussed: Monticello, Central Park, RM Schindler and Richard Neutra’s houses and Thomas Church’s Donnell Garden.

How to See: Looking, Talking and Thinking About Art

David Salle to presented the Cockefair Chair lecture on February 22nd.

David Salle’s paintings are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenhein Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Nationalgalerie Berlin, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and many others.

Salle presented on his book How to See: Looking, Talking and Thinking about Art. In this book, Salle explores art topics such as the aesthetics of cool, the relationship between art and celebrity, and the evolution of an artists’ style over a lifetime–always while paying close attention to and unpacking the workings of the art itself. Salle gave listeners the knowledge and courage to view art not through the veils of theory, criticism and history, but armed with their intuition, curiosity and humanity.


Refugees in a World of Anarchy

The Cockefair Chair Speakers Committee welcomed bestselling author, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and contributing editor at The Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan to present the fall lecture on November 16, 2016.

Kaplan was chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor and member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Foreign Policy magazine twice named him one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.”

Kaplan explained the scale of refugees in the 21st century by giving an overview of the history of geopolitics and examining how states –especially in the Middle East and Africa– are currently declining, thus creating more refugees. He also explored how the lack of education in refugee camps are providing a bright future for Islamic radicalization.

Tony Jones, Guest Speaker at Fall Cockefair Luncheon

The Fall Cockefair Luncheon on August 17, 2016 featured guest speaker Tony Jones.

Jones, an internationally known British arts administrator, broadcaster, writer, and historian of art and design, is the President of Kansas City Art Institute. Among several leadership positions, he was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II as director of the Royal College of Art, London (1991-1996). He also served as the president of School of the Art Institute of Chicago, retiring in 2013 as chancellor. He has published several books and many essays on art and design, curated numerous international exhibitions and has hosted several television and radio programs for the BBC in the UK. He is a recognized authority on the development of art, design and architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular the work of architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Celtic Revival designer Archibald Knox.

During the Cockefair Luncheon, Jones spoke on the cultural and economic miracle of Millennium Park, Chicago, and its implications for Kansas City’s future. How did 26 acres of mud and weeds in downtown Chicago become a cultural, educational and entertainment center center that now attracts 7 million visitors a year? Jones knows the whole story and took the audience behind the scenes, revealed how it was done, and what an incredible impact it has had.

Enlivening Dance Onstage: What’s Edgy Now?

The Cockefair Chair Speakers Committee and the Kansas City Ballet invited award-winning dancer, choreographer, author and dance critic, Wendy Perron to present the Cockefair Chair lecture on May 17, 2016. Perron, author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer, had a 30-year career as a dancer/choreographer. She danced with the Trisha Brown company in the 1970s and choreographed more than 40 works for her own group. She has taught at Bennington, Princeton, and the Five College Dance Department among many other schools and dance centers. In the early 1990s she served as associate director of Jacob’s Pillow, where she directed intensives in postmodern dance and improvisation. The former longtime editor in chief of Dance Magazine, Wendy has also written for The New York Times, The Village Voice, Contact Quarterly, and

During her lecture, Perron presented videos illustrating the work of risk-taking choreographers and explain what she sees as the future of contemporary dance. How have choreographers Jowole Willa Jo Zollar, Crystal Pite, Wayne McGregor, William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin and Bill T. Jones moved the image of the beautiful female dancer and the heroic male dancer to dynamic and innovative new ways of thinking about movement in dance? How do these choreographers go deeper into what it means to be human? How have they addressed issues of political and cultural identity with fresh insights and new expression?