Philip Kunhardt joined the faculty of New York University in 2010 to teach and to work towards the creation of a new Center focusing on the study of “transformative lives.” To exemplify the kind of teaching the Center will sponsor, over the past three years he has taught honors seminars on exceptional lives to small groups of students, and lecture courses on transformative figures and themes to classes that range from 70 to 120 participants. Student evaluations for these courses have attested to the life-changing effect of this kind of teaching and of the subjects Kunhardt presents for exploration. In addition he has hosted numerous public events on transformative lives in what have affectionately been dubbed the Center’s “transformative evenings.”
In April, 2012, after extensive planning, the Center held its official inaugural lecture and reception at its headquarters on the fifth floor of 20 Cooper Square in New York. Co-sponsored by the Humanities Initiative and the NYU Biography Seminar, the event featured world-renowned scholar David Blight of Yale University, whose lecture was titled “What Makes a Transformative Life?: Why Frederick Douglass Matters.” The full-to-capacity lecture room of invited guests included donors, advisors, NYU professors and graduate students, professional biographers, NYU administrators, undergraduates, and friends. By all measures it was a fine success with several people calling the lecture one of the most stimulating they ever heard. Center programs for 2012-13 have been organized around the theme of Lincoln and emancipation, in this the 150th anniversary year of the preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamations. On September 27, James Oakes of CUNY Graduate School spoke to a capacity crowd at 20 Cooper Square and revealed new discoveries he is making through in-depth research in Civil War archives. On November 19 Eric Foner of Columbia University, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2011, spoke on Lincoln and slavery to a University-wide and public audience gathered by the Center. In addition, the Center hosted a program in April with Douglas Wilson of Knox College speaking on “Lincoln’s encounter with Shakespeare.”
The Center also co-sponsored an evening with Entertainment CEO Strauss Zelnick, known for his passion for mentoring young lives in their quest for personal and career success. In the fall of 2013 Professor Kunhardt taught an honors seminar on of Martin Luther King, Jr., offering a new look at an iconic figure. It coincided with important new Center programming on the figure of Dr. King including the day long visit of Taylor Branch to the Center and to the campus. In the spring of 2014 he teaches a new honors seminar entitled Lincoln in Time: Private and Public Transformations. This course is an exploration of Abraham Lincoln's transformative leadership, a touchstone for all subsequent American presidencies, and a map by which to better understand today’s complex racial landscape. We will closely explore the personal Lincoln, always in the context of his times and their challenges, and see how a series of wrenching personal crises sorely tested but also helped forge Lincoln's character. It is another example of the Center’s biographical approach to the study of history and human progress. In the years since, the Center has branched out in it programming and teaching, bringing such figures to address public audiences as Francesco Izzo (on Verdi), James Carroll (on Pope Francis), John Matteson (on Margaret Fuller), Stacey Schiff, Ron Chernow, and John Matteson (on "Is Biography True?"), and Roxana Robinson (on Georgia O'Keeffe). In a short period, the Center for the Study of Transformative Lives has generated tremendous interest and support. The animating principle behind the Center has struck a chord with faculty, students, biographers, and the general public. We have laid the foundation for robust program development and now seek to build an endowment to sustain the Center, in this most international of cities and within this most global of universities.