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Dean Harold Attridge on Tony Blair at YDS

Editor’s note

On March 7, Yale University announced that former British Prime Minster Tony Blair would teach at Yale during the 2008-09 academic year as a Howland Distinguished Fellow, in partnership with Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Management.  Below is the statement Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge issued in conjunction with the announcement, followed by an April 4 Q&A in which the dean discusses particulars of Blair’s collaboration with Yale Divinity School.  Meanwhile, Blair delivered a major address on April 3 at Westminster Cathedral, London, arguing that issues of faith are critical to maintenance of peace in the modern world.  Click here to hear or view Blair’s speech.

Dean Harold Attridge’s statement on the decision of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to teach at Yale in 2008-09:

“We are tremendously pleased and excited about Tony Blair’s decision to engage in sustained interaction with the Divinity School while he is at the University.  In our communications with him, he has indicated a deep interest in issues related to the intersection of religion with society.  We look forward to bringing his insights on ethics, values and leadership to bear on life at the Divinity School as we carry out our core mission of preparing leaders for service in church and world.”

In an April 4 interview, Dean Attridge discussed particulars of Tony Blair’s collaboration with Yale Divinity School:

Why now, and why Tony Blair at YDS?

Well, why now, the opportunity presented itself.  We at the Divinity School invited Mr. Blair to come and give one of our endowed lectures.  This invitation was sent out about a year and a half ago.  Unbeknownst to us, at the same time (Yale President) Rick Levin had also sent a letter exploring the possibility of coming as a visitor of some sort after he stepped down from his public office.  His office responded politely to both feelers from the University and declined.  But he contacted us through his staff after he had stepped down from the prime minister’s job and indicated that he was interested in pursuing some initiatives having to do with religion and globalization in his retirement. So conversations developed with members of the staff over the course of the summer and fall leading to an agreement that he would come as a visitor to us, teaching a university-wide course on faith and globalization. So the topic is very timely, given the prominence of religion in the public sphere these days, sometimes doing good things, sometimes doing negative things, and he is very much interested in exploring both the ways religion has been misused and has caused harm to human beings and the way in which it can be used as a very positive element of contemporary life.  So, that has to do with the timing.  In terms of him to do it, he’s a person who has been involved in several significant areas of the contemporary world where religion has played a very prominent role.  First of all, in bringing peace to Northern Ireland after almost 400 years of strife there in a situation where religion was a very important part of the scene.  And he also played a role in the Balkans, in the dislocation caused, in part at least, by the cultural and religious traditions there.  And currently, of course, he’s involved in the Middle East peace initiative and obviously religious dimensions of the Middle East Israeli-Palestinian conflict are quite prominent.  So, he’s wrestled for some time with issues of religion and its role on the contemporary scene and has given it a lot of thought and wants to continue that in a setting where the resources of a great university would be a part of the conversation.

To what extent has the presence of Denys Turner (the Horace Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology) here been helpful in getting Tony Blair to come, with Ruth Turner being on Tony’s staff?

The fact that Denys Turner was here is incidental to the interest that Tony has in us.  The staff contact person was Ruth Turner, who is Denys’s daughter, but I think more significant perhaps was the fact that Tony Blair’s son was a student here, and so Tony had a knowledge of the place and some sense of its resources and scope.

What are some of the specifics of the course, number of students, etc.?

The course is going to be team-taught with a member of our faculty, and there will be guest appearances by other faculty members and other political folk that Tony Blair has relationships with, and exactly who will be coming when is still something that’s being worked out. Blair will be here on site for about five or six sessions of the course, and he’ll be in town for, oh, probably two days, at each of those sessions, and he’ll also be involved in some public events connected in some way or other to the course – a general public lecture, a conversation with Rick Levin available to the whole community, probably a joint session of his course and the Grand Strategy course that will also be publicly available in some form or another.  So all of those details are still being worked out, as are the foci of each individual session of the course.  I assume there will be a lot of interest in the course, and it will operate in much the same way as the Grand Strategy course, that is, students will apply to enroll in it and the instructors will require some sort of essay or something from students who would like to be n the course and then will select in such a way as to provide an interesting balance among the students.

Since it is a join YDS/SOM initiative, will there be a certain number of spaces blocked out for Divinity and SOM students?

There certainly will be special attention to students from those two schools. 

Where will the course be taught?

The location is to be determined.

Will this be a lecture course or seminar?

It’s gong to be a seminar, and there are two competing concerns here, one, to make the experience available to as broad a selection of students as possible but also to keep it a meaningful seminar experience, and so the number that they’ll finally decide on for the course probably will be in the range of 30-35. 

What is the name of course?

I think it’s “Faith and Globalization,” but they may have subtitles.

Is there any thought being given to a longer-term relationship with Tony Blair?  Is this seen in any way as a trial run?

We hope that he would come back for a repeat of the course for another year or two, but we’re keeping options open as he is keeping options open. And there will be a follow-up to the course in terms of a conference on the issues raised by the course, and that will take place either in the spring or summer of 2009. 

What about Tony Blair’s decision to support the United State on the Iraq war?

Well, I think you have to look at the larger picture of his career and the issues in which he has been engaged.  I personally do not think that the decision to invade Iraq was a wise one, and the aftermath of the invasion has certainly been a horrendous mess.  I suspect that the issue may well arise in the context of the seminar.

The points Tony Blair made in his April 3 speech seem to resonate with what YDS is trying to do with its Reconciliation Program.

That’s right, it fits into things that are under way here.

Where will Tony Blair live?

He probably will not be living here for long periods of time.  He’ll be staying in town overnight on several of the times when he’s here.  But his main residence will remain in the U.K., and he obviously will be traveling a lot, both in connection with the work of his foundation and also with his Middle East peace work. 

Is this costing YDS anything, or is it taken care of by the University?

It’s a University appointment.  The Divinity School is not paying Tony’s salary.  It’s coming out of a fund at the President’s office, the Howland visitorship. 

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