Abel family donates $100,000 endowment for speaker series

The family of former University President Harold Abel gifted a $100,000 endowment for a speaker series focusing on dictatorship, democracy and genocide.

“It is a great honor to receive it,” said Tim Hall, history department chairman. “I’m glad Mrs. Abel trusts us enough to use this money.”

The Abel Endowment Lecture Series will bring survivors of genocides and prominent scholars to CMU. The committee will choose its first speaker in the next few weeks.

“It’s my recommendation that we start with a Holocaust survivor,” said history professor Eric Johnson, who teaches a course on the Jewish Holocaust and is a member of the advisory board that will choose lecturers. “I think it would be a respectful beginning to hear from a survivor.”

Abel, CMU’s president from 1975-85, died in 2002 at 75 years old. Abel’s legacy lies with his research in genocide and dictatorship, especially with the Jewish Holocaust, Hall said.

Johnson said it is important to remember the Holocaust and to learn about modern genocides.

“It’s real valuable for contemporary times and to learn how to combat these problems in the present,” he said.

Johnson said he sees the series as a chance to boast CMU as an academic and intellectual university.

“I hope the series becomes a distinguished lecture series,” he said. “Hopefully people from distinguished places will come and that the lecture series will become known internationally.”

Johnson said Abel was a president who did a lot to advance CMU from just a Michigan university to a nationally- and internationally-known school.

During Abel’s term as president, CMU introduced study abroad and doctoral programs.

“(Abel) was really concerned about making CMU a powerful and intellectual place,” Johnson said. “He worked hard during tough economic times to make a more diverse and stronger campus and succeeded.”

Abel’s wife worked with Lesa Smith, director of Development and Alumni Relations, and Interim Provost Gary Shapiro to ensure the lecture series would be an ongoing event at CMU.

“Mrs. Abel is very interested in having her husband’s work remembered,” Smith said. “This endowment is establishing something on campus in his legacy.”

The committee in charge of the endowment includes members of the Abel family, professors from various departments at CMU including political science, history, and geography, and members of the Jewish community in Michigan. Johnson said people from broad backgrounds are involved with the committee.

Beyond the first speaker, Johnson believes the lecture series should host respected scholars and witnesses from other genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.

“Students should learn what genocide is and how fragile democracy is, and how easy it is to fall into totalitarianism,” he said. “If people hear about it and think about it, maybe they will get together and do something.

“These are important issues of the past, present, and future.”