The University of Iowa

Beneath elegantly sloped ceilings, immersed in the homely smell of a restored 1920s home, forty scholars, creatives, and intellectuals gathered to eagerly speak about bringing the nation’s most collaborative program to the University of Iowa. Here, at the Obermann Center in the summer of 2012, Teresa Mangum, Director of the Obermann Center, proposed the idea of executing an annual Theme Semester.

Sharing a single large table, leaders from different parts of the campus and community pondered the idea. The Theme Semester program is aimed to bring together people from different walks of life to share healthy and intellectual discussions about current and important topics in the world. It would be a big project that would open doors for many campus and community members.

“Teresa introduced it that day, and I think it was unanimous. We all thought, ‘Yeah, this is a really cool concept. Let’s do some serious thinking about this.’,” Chuck Swanson, Executive Director of Hancher Auditorium said.

11 colleges, almost 23,000 faculty and staff members, and over 31,000 students populate the University of Iowa –a campus with a bustling, culture-rich community just across the street. With this many groups and individuals with such diverse perspectives, experiences, and insights, a collaborative program such as Theme Semester was sure to flourish.

“I like to be as inclusive as possible,” Mangum said, “so I look around the university and think, ‘Who would be interested in this and who could help this initiative?’” Ultimately, Mangum sought out representatives from the community and campus who had already demonstrated excitement about the idea of publically engaged arts, scholarship, and research.

Theme Semester found its grounding under the Provost’s Office of Outreach & Engagement, where Associate Provost for Outreach and Engagement, Linda Snetselaar, and her team seek to intertwine community and campus efforts. Through the Office of Outreach & Engagement, the Theme Semester has the ability to reach out to campus and community partners and unite their common goals and interests around a topic that everyone can relate to.

So often, Snetselaar noted, the university’s 11 colleges work in singularity, relying on their own departments to create, learn, and research. “We thought that the Theme Semester would be helpful for faculty meeting each other, for students meeting each other, for them to meet with the community. It sort of gets us out of our silos,” Snetselaar said.

A great variety of groups, from Hancher Auditorium to the University Lecture Committee came together to ensure the first Theme Semester’s success. “It can be the museums, it can be Hancher, it can be something related to the arts,” Swanson said, “but trying to connect that to academic departments in a multi-disciplinary approach is so rich.”

The first annual Theme Semester grew organically, from Mangum’s idea. And with the first annual Theme Semester in 2015, Food for Thought, Iowa was struck. Stimulated by high-profile speakers like author Mark Bittman, food-focused UI coursework, and over 400 other events, Iowans discovered new ways to think about the important topic of food.

From new partnerships between cookbook authors and food biologists, to ideas shared between Iowan famers and University scholars, the first annual Theme Semester demonstrated the importance of a program that unites diverse people over a single topic and removes them from their silos, as Snetselaar said.

“We need to be sure that we allow for these discussions,” Snetselaar said. “We need to have a variety of things going on on our campus that allow people to question or look at things in a different way. All of that’s incredibly positive, and I think we need to really embrace it.”

Moving forward, Theme Semester has facilitated the beginnings of countless partnerships –connections that last long after each theme has ended.

“We’re bringing the world to our campus, inspiring on a local level, educating the students who are the future,” Kelly Soukup, Coordinator of Lectures, Media and Arts, Center for Student Involvement and Leadership said.

In his field, Soukup experiences students transformed by significant encounters with new ideas weekly. Connecting the students he works with in the University Lecture Committee to the Theme Semester program gives them an opportunity to delve into the topic in new ways. With these two programs intersecting over the topic of social justice for the Just Living Theme Semester in spring 2016, the partnership was able to bring renowned political activist Angela Davis to speak in Iowa City.

“We need to look at all sides to an issue,” Snetselaar said. “And if people feel comfortable voicing something that is a little more controversial, a little bit emotional –that’s potentially a very good thing because they’re being given a voice and that is incredibly important.”

To be involved with Theme Semester is to welcome new ideas and to be given a platform to share your own ideas. Contributing to Theme Semester is as easy and rewarding as sharing your thoughts and being open to listen to others’ opinions. From this campus and community-wide effort, we can come to new conclusions and build on these conclusions together.

“Hopefully we can take words and turn them into actions,” Soukup said. The program serves to creates spaces for people think about a topic differently and motivates them to find solutions to national and international issues concerning the topic.

“The Theme Semester is planting seeds for things that can continue to get better –things that we can continue to explore,” Swanson said. “We can always be better.”