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UW-Green Bay launches speaker series honoring former professor’s legacy

The “Harvey J. Kaye State of Democracy Speaker Series” launches on Oct. 26 with an inaugural debut from national airline labor leader Sara Nelson

By John McCracken

Sara Nelson, a national labor leader in the aviation industry, is the inaugural speaker for the new UW-Green Bay speaker series. Photo courtesy of UW-Green Bay

What do the famed English historian, author and member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament E.P. Thompson, New York Times columnist David Brookes and original 1960s freedom rider, civil rights activist and entrepreneur Hank Thomas all have in common?

They’ve all come to Green Bay with the help of a now retired professor.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Professor Emeritus Harvey J. Kaye spent the last four decades at UWGB as a founding director of the university’s Center for History and Social Change, which is now known as the Democracy and Justice Studies department.

To honor Kaye’s work and legacy, UW-Green Bay has launched the “Harvey J. Kaye State of Democracy Speaker Series.” The first event is slated for Oct. 26 at the Fort Howard Hall in the Weidner Center at 7 pm. 

Throughout his tenure, it wasn’t uncommon for more public, non-university affiliated figures—especially those in the labor movement—to grace the halls of UW-Green Bay because of Kaye’s coordination.

Kaye began a speaker series in 1985 when the campus was in the midst of its 20th anniversary celebration. Kaye said he approached the now-late, then-chancellor Edward Weidner to fund a guest lecture to celebrate the anniversary. Kaye was inspired by talks and panels he saw during his time at Rutgers University and The University of London.

“I was always impressed by the fact that important people would come to speak at the university,” Kaye said. “That I could go (there) without having to turn on television or anything like that.”

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Professor Emeritus Harvey J. Kaye

Kaye said before he started the series, he felt that activity on campus was “kind of boring.” At the time, the young professor used his connections, enthusiasm and a promise of a home cooked meal to secure great minds to come to Green Bay.

Despite their notoriety, guests got an intimate and hospitable Green Bay experience as Kaye, his wife Lorna and his two adolescent daughters at the time, hosted travelling guests at their home.

Kaye said the list of visiting guests, and spontaneous houseguests, was a hodgepodge of intellectuals, journalists, academics, and performing and visual artists and the series lasted from 1985 all the way to 2019.

The series was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that same time, Kaye decided to retire and he did so in August of last year. To honor his time and dedication to facilitating important talks and conversations, the newly launched speaker series was named after him.

“It’s nice to think that if it’s sustained it’s a way of being remembered,” Kaye said.

The inaugural session will feature a talk from airline labor leader Sara Nelson, who represents 50,000 of aviation’s first responders at 17 airlines.

In early 2019, Nelson called for a general strike across various industries to end the 2018-2019 government shutdown—the longest shutdown in U.S. history, which was caused in part by former President Trump’s insistence of nearly $6 billion to fund a Southern border wall.

Nelson was in the global spotlight early in the COVID-19 pandemic. As the airline industry was decimated by government shutdowns and travel restrictions, Nelson was an early proponent of stopping pay cuts while keeping healthcare benefits for airline workers.

“We felt like it was really important to have the inaugural speaker be somebody who would really honor Harvey’s career,” associate professor and chair of democracy and justice studies Jon Shelton said. “We were really excited that we have Sarah Nelson, who (is) this nationally prominent labor leader.”

Shelton, who worked closely with Kaye during his time on campus, said the speaker series is coming at an important and fragile time in the nation’s history. 

“We’re sort of in a moment that’s very similar to other areas of political crisis in the United States (such as) the Civil War, Great Depression,” Shelton said. “I don’t think it’s an understatement to say we’re in that era. So a speaker series that brings in nationally prominent intellectuals and activists that can help facilitate that conversation on their campus is essential right now.”

John McCracken is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmcjmc451.

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