Intellectual Exchange

The Tanner Humanities Center celebrates 35 years of creating spaces for engaging conversations

On a windy night in February 2022, poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts sat across from Erika George, director of the Tanner Humanities Center, as she asked him direct questions about his path out of prison. Betts, who was incarcerated at 16 years old and went on to become a critically acclaimed writer, Yale Law School graduate, and a MacArthur “genius grant” fellow, laughed and said, “You’re starting with a hard question.”

Without missing a beat, George replied, “I don’t know that it gets any easier.”

Over the rest of the night, Betts spoke freely to an enraptured audience, expanding on his journey as a writer and advocate and the role of poetry in healing from the violence of incarceration. Even on a wide stage, the conversation evoked an intimate conversation in a living room. After the talk, audience members flocked to microphones to ask questions.

This kind of open and intellectual banter is characteristic of the kind of spaces the Tanner Humanities Center creates. Since its founding in 1988, the center has provided myriad opportunities to exchange complex ideas, ask hard questions, and share meaning and solutions through free events that are open to the public. 

This year, the center is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Originally founded as the Utah Humanities Center, it was endowed in 1995 through the family foundation of Obert C. Tanner BA’29 JD’36 (1904-1993) and renamed for Obert and his wife, Grace ex’35. Tanner was an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He also taught philosophy at the U for more than 25 years. In 1978, he helped found the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which brings leaders to speak at nine different universities around the world. Aimed at better understanding human behavior and values, Tanner said at the time of founding the series, “This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.”

The center has hosted writers, theorists, historians, artists, Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, and other leaders, including Margaret Atwood, Tony Kushner, Spike Lee, Anita Hill, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and many more.

This is an excerpt from 35 Years of Humanities for the Public. Read the full feature here.


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