Last September, I had the honor of introducing the inaugural guest in UB’s 31st annual Distinguished Speakers Series: Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young woman who took on the Taliban because she wanted to go to school.
Before a capacity crowd in Alumni Arena, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate reflected on her childhood in Pakistan, where her denunciations of the Taliban’s brutal tactics to repress girls’ rights were answered with a gunshot to her face.
And still, Malala persisted.
“They wanted to silence me in the Swat Valley,” she said. “And now, I’m speaking globally for all girls.”
To hear Malala explain how she risked her life to advocate for education awed and humbled me, as I suspect was the case for everyone gathered that evening. But her visit to campus also took on historic significance in that it marked the 10th time UB has hosted a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
This proud tradition began in 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a talk titled “The Future of Integration,” extemporizing on such topics as voting rights, Vietnam and—like Malala a half-century later—access to education as a civil right.
“There comes a time,” King said that night, “when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular. But he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Five months later, he was assassinated.
Another 22 years passed before UB hosted not one, but two Peace Prize laureates: former President Jimmy Carter (who would receive the award in 2002) and anti-apartheid cleric Desmond Tutu.
I’ve been told you could hear a pin drop when Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke at the Center for the Arts in 1998.
In 2006, our community participated in a momentous three-day visit from the Dalai Lama.
The following year, a celebration of UB’s environmental leadership culminated with talks by former Vice President Al Gore and Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai. Gore, who would receive his Peace Prize later that year, encouraged students to learn more about climate change.
“Empower yourselves with knowledge,” he said. “This is the moral challenge of our time. And knowledge can make the fear go away.”
Three years later, Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, launched the 2009-2010 Distinguished Speakers Series with a discussion about security in a globalized world.
And then, in 2013, I welcomed Barack Obama to UB—the first sitting president to speak on campus since Millard Fillmore in 1853.
That’s quite a list, and quite a history!
But it’s no accident that UB has hosted so many change-makers from the pantheon of Peace Prize laureates.
Through the years, our mission has remained steadfast: to harness our research, scholarly activity, service and creative endeavors for the greater good. That is what unites us, whether student, staff, faculty or alumni.
And it’s why we have consistently and intentionally sought out speakers of the highest character to address our community. Whether fighting deforestation or strengthening international diplomacy, whether surviving the terror of the Taliban or the atrocities of the Nazis, each of these inspirational individuals has been compelled by conscience to make the world a more harmonious place.
As such, they embody the highest ideals of our university. Their messages embolden us to unlock our own potential, to become agents of change.
Over a half-century, across campus, their words echo still.