Philip Kunhardt joined the faculty of New York University in 2010 to teach undergraduates and 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 seven 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 in size. 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 each year in what have affectionately been called the Center’s “transformative evenings.”
In April 2012, the Center held its official inaugural lecture and reception, co-sponsored by the Humanities Initiative and the NYU Biography Seminar, which 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 had ever heard. Center programs in the years since have brought such luminaries to NYU as James Oakes of CUNY Graduate Center, Eric Foner of Columbia University, Taylor Branch (on Martin Luther King Jr.), Francesco Izzo (on Verdi), James Carroll (on Pope Francis), John Matteson (on Margaret Fuller), Roxana Robinson (on Georgia O'Keeffe), David Remnick (on Barack Obama), Nell Painter (on Sojourner Truth), and Megan Marshall (on Elizabeth Bishop and others).
In a relatively short period, working from its location on West Fourth Street on Washington Square Park, the Center for the Study of Transformative Lives has generated tremendous interest and support. The core principals behind the Center have not only struck a chord with faculty, students, biographers, and the general public, but they help to inform pertinent program development that supports social progress through the conviction that an example of a great and good life, studied in depth and at length, can become a guiding influence on people’s lives today as they confront their own choices, decisions, and opportunities. We have laid the foundation for robust 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.