Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Response from Damon Williams, Vice-Provost for Diversity and Climate

I was delighted when I learned that the Go Big Read committee had chosen The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as our second common read selection. I can think of few books that offer our campus community an opportunity to consider diversity along so many lines. Rebecca Skloot’s book invites a discussion not only of issues of race and ethnicity, but also of gender and socio-economic status. As the UW System moves to create a much broader definition of diversity, this book is a wonderful vehicle for students to consider the multi-layered nature of identity and to think about how our experiences can be shaped by the intersection of several kinds of discrimination simultaneously.

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Skloot’s rich narrative, her methodology has served as an equally important springboard for conversations about the relationship between researchers and the populations that they study. I was intrigued by Professor Nan Enstad’s synopsis of the dialogue that her History 900 seminar students had concerning Skloot’s interactions with the Lacks family (http://blog.gobigread.wisc.edu/2010/10/history-900-responds-to-immortal-life.html ). As I read the book I was aware, as were Professor Enstad’s students, of the tensions between the importance of giving voice to Henrietta Lacks and her descendants and the means necessary to do that. Without going so far as to weigh in on Skloot’s methods, which would involve making judgments outside of my own disciplinary area of expertise , I do think that the book serves as an excellent tool for exploring the responsibilities involved in any project involving human subjects, especially when working with our most vulnerable populations.

I am looking forward to next Monday’s author visit and am equally excited about the broad array of opportunities to “sift and winnow” through the many issues raised in the book during the course of this academic year. I was pleased to include a panel discussion of the book, led by Professors Dayle B. Delancey and Susan E. Lederer of the Department of the History of Science, at this year’s Diversity Forum. In addition, my office is co-sponsoring a lecture on some of the issues raised in the book by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in March 2011. I strongly encourage anybody who is interested in diversity, and especially in issues of diversity and research ethics, to read this fascinating book and to engage in one of the many upcoming opportunities to discuss it with other members of the university community.

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