Office of the Provost

Wilson Hall, Room 205
371 Wilson Boulevard
Rochester, MI 48309-4486
(location map)
(248) 370-2190

Varner Vitality Lecture Series

Varner Vitality Lecture Series

The Varner Vitality Lecture Series is named in honor of Oakland’s first chancellor, Durward “Woody” Varner. The series aims to energize and sustain the highest academic and scholarly aspirations of the University community. This lecture is sponsored by the Division of Academic Affairs. Previous speakers include Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former president of India; Dr. Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State; Dr. Jane Goodall, world-renowned primatologist; Bill Nye, scientist, author and TV host; and most recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The event is free and open to the public.  For more information on the series, please call (248) 370-2190.

2019 Varner Vitality

Thursday, March 14, 2019, 7 p.m.
Oakland Center, Founders Ballrooms A and B

In the summer of 1994, the cover story of the August issue of Harper’s piqued David McMillan’s curiosity. Written by Alan Weisman, “Journey Through a Doomed Land: Exploring Chernobyl’s Still-Deadly Ruins” described Weisman's travels to the former Soviet Union with a team of American and local scientists "intent upon making a map for survival in an irradiated landscape.”

“As I read Weisman,” McMillan recently mused, “Chernobyl was no longer an abstraction, no longer just the world’s worst nuclear accident. Somehow that connected with my teenage fears of the Cold War and the time in high school when I read On the Beach,” a reference to the chilling specter of global annihilation by radiation fallout written in 1957 by the Australian Nevil Shute.

Intrigued by this renewed awareness of the tragedy and the personal recollections it triggered, McMillan felt the urge to see for himself what Weisman described as “the intractable matter of Chernobyl.” Within three months, he became one of the first artists to gain access to the Zone, where he has since journeyed twenty-two times. 

About the Speaker

black and white photo of a man with his arms folded in front of him, in front of a stone wallAlan Weisman, “Revisiting a Journey Through a Doomed Land”

A few years after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, journalist Alan Weisman traveled there with Russian, Ukrainian, and American scientists tasked with designing safe ways for people to remain in surrounding regions. In his Varner Vitality Lecture, Weisman, whose report became a cover story for Harper’s, will describe visiting the decaying reactor and the lush farms that comprised the Soviet Union’s most fertile breadbasket, until Chernobyl’s fallout left them lethally radioactive. There, and in Kyiv cancer wards that will continue to receive victims for decades, he learned not only that the world can't afford another Chernobyl, but also that we couldn't afford the first one, either.

Alan Weisman has worked on seven continents and in more than 50 countries. He is the author of six books. His most recent, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (2013), is now in thirteen foreign language editions. His previous book, The World Without Us (2007), was a New York Times and international bestseller. It was named the top nonfiction book of 2007 by Time, Entertainment Weekly, and Canada’s National Post, and has been translated into thirty-four languages.

Weisman is a co-founder of Homelands Productions. His radio pieces have been heard on NPR, Public Radio International, and American Public Media. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orion, Audubon, Mother Jones, Discover, Condé Nast Traveler, Resurgence, and in several anthologies. He has been a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and a professor of writing, journalism, and Latin American studies at Prescott College and the University of Arizona.

2019 Symposium

Friday, March 15, 2019
“Chernobyl Then and Now: A Global Perspective Symposium”

This symposium is made possible by the generous support of the Division of Academic Affairs.

Morning Session: Meadow Brook Hall Ballroom
Seating limited to first 100 registrants. Please go to to register.

Moderated by Professor Claude Baillargeon, Department of Art and Art History, Oakland University.

8 am – Doors open

8:45 a.m. – Opening remarks, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost James Lentini, Oakland University

9 a.m. – Serhii Plokhii, “Nuclear Power and the Arrogance of Man: Reexamining the Causes of the Chernobyl Accident”

man in a blue jacket and shirt, wearing glasses, looking into the cameraSerhii Plokhii draws on new sources to lay bare the flaws of the Soviet nuclear industry, tracing the disaster to the authoritarian character of Communist party rule, the regime’s control of scientific information, and its emphasis on economic development over all else.

Serhii Plokhii is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. A leading authority on Eastern Europe, he has published extensively in English, Ukrainian, and Russian. Plokhii is the author of several influential monographs, including Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation (2017). His newest book, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (2018), was awarded UK’s Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.

10 a.m. – Mary Mycio, “They Radioactive Wilderness of Chernobyl”

woman wearing a blue and green scarf, smiling at the cameraBy making the lands of Chernobyl too dangerous for people to live permanently, the disaster paradoxically made it safe for the natural world. Today, the Zone of Alienation is Europe’s largest – accidental – wildlife sanctuary. Trap camera photography now provides unprecedented views into this newly wild and radioactive world.

Mary Mycio, JD, is the author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl and numerous articles in the Los Angeles Times, Nature, BBC Outlook, Salon, and Slate. She is featured in the 2015 documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl and appeared on NPR, CNN, NBC, and the BBC. Mycio is also a legal consultant on international freedom of expression and has worked in countries such as East Timor, Moldova, Thailand, and Ukraine.

11 a.m. – Adriana Petryna, “How Did They Survive?”

woman in a black shirt and glasses smiling at the cameraUkraine—and the world—face a legacy of incomplete knowledge about Chernobyl’s public health consequences. Accounting for these is not a closed matter, but hinges on what kinds of research and funds are applied, and over what timescale. A reckoning with complex truths lays the groundwork for a better response to future disasters.

Adriana Petryna is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of award-winning books, including Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl and When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects. She is currently completing What is a Horizon? Abrupt Climate Change and Human Futures.

12:30 p.m. – Box lunch, Oakland Center, Founders Ballroom A

Afternoon Sessions: Oakland Center, Founders Ballrooms
Open seating. No registration required.

All afternoon speakers and moderators are Oakland University faculty members. Unless otherwise stated, they are scholars from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Breakout Session I
Oakland Center
Founders Ballroom B

Moderated by Assistant Professor Galina Tirnanić, Department of Art and Art History.
Breakout Session II
Oakland Center
Founders Ballroom C

Moderated by Associate Professor John Corso Esquivel, Department of Art and Art History.
Breakout Session III
Oakland Center
Founders Ballroom D

Moderated by Assistant Professor Petya V. Andreeva, Department of Art and Art History.
2 p.m.Opening RemarksOpening RemarksOpening Remarks
2:05 p.m.Professor Brad Roth, Department of Physics, will address the factors that led to the explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.Special Lecturer Gregory Allar, International Studies Program, will discuss the political fallout of the Chernobyl Disaster on the reform policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.Associate Professor Cristian Cantir, Department of Political Science, will present on the impact of Chernobyl on Moldovan society and on its foreign policy, especially bilateral ties with Russia and Ukraine.
2:35 p.m.Associate Professor Douglas Carr, Department of Political Science, will compare the Chernobyl disaster to other nuclear incidents in discussing public policy responses and upcoming nuclear policy challenges in the U.S.Associate Professor Linda Schweitzer, Department of Chemistry, will discuss the environmental impact of Chernobyl's radioactivity on Ukraine's water resources.Assistant Professor Taras K. Oleksyk, Department of Biological Sciences, will draw on his own extensive field research within the Exclusion Zone to provide a closer look at the radioactive animals of Chernobyl.
3:05 p.m.Distinguished Professor Michael D. Sevilla, Department of Chemistry, will discuss the effects of radiation on living organisms in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.Assistant Professor Joyce C. Havstad, Department of Philosophy, will discuss monitoring (rather than containing) Chernobyl, in a way that allows for post-disaster expression and growth in artistic, educational, and technological terms.Special Lecturer Donna Voronovich, Department of Art and Art History, will speak about the humanitarian aid initiatives for Chernobyl organized by the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States.
3:35 p.m.Associate Professor Kanako Taku, Department of Psychology, will introduce the phenomenon of posttraumatic growth to draw connections between her current study of Fukushima survivors and the well-being of Chernobyl evacuees and workers.Associate Professor Krzysztof J. Kobus, Mechanical Engineering Department, School of Engineering and Computer Science, will address the engineering of the New Safe Confinement and the benefits and dangers of nuclear power.Associate Professor Jason Adam Wasserman, Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, will speak on nuclear disaster, unpredictable risk, and the end of modern medicine.
4 p.m.DiscussionDiscussionDiscussion
Past Speakers
2003J. Craig Venter
2006Susan Love
2008Madeline Albright
2009A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
2011Thomas Friedman
2012Steven Pinker
2013Jane Goodall
2014Daniel J. Levitin
2015Morten Lauridsen
2016Bill Nye
2017Doris Kearns Goodwin
2019Alan Weisman