Winter 2010

Beyond the Quads

Return & reflect

Alumni speakers made the 500th convocation more than a ceremony.

By Laura Demanski, AM’94


“It’s so typically Chicago,” says Paul Volberding, AB’71, “to celebrate people’s accomplishments by having them give lectures.” When the University planned its 500th convocation on October 9, each academic department and school invited a distinguished alum to deliver a public lecture following the ceremony. The College invited Volberding, an HIV/AIDS physician and researcher and a former president of the alumni board of governors. One of Volberding’s classmates, theorist and art historian Stephen Melville, AB’71, PhD’81, was asked to speak by the Department of Comparative Literature.


Paul Volberding is professor and vice chair of the medical department at the University of California, San Francisco. His talk, “Learning from AIDS: Remaining Challenges in the HIV Epidemic,” measured how far we’ve come since he saw some of the first cases of AIDS shortly after arriving at San Francisco General Hospital to begin his medical career, and how far there still is to go.

You were in the middle of the search for an AIDS treatment from the beginning.

I saw my first case in 1981. By 1996 it was, in a sense, over—that was the big break. We saw patients who were near death in 1995 who recovered when anti-retroviral treatment became available in 1996 and are alive today. They had friends who died just weeks before they would have had access to the treatment.

Do you remember when you first believed the treatment worked?

We first heard about it in January 1996 at a meeting in DC, and there was an international meeting in Vancouver that summer. By then we’d been seeing enough of the data that our minds were more prepared. And in Vancouver it really hit us—I remember talking to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, Marilyn Chase, at the meeting and tearing up just talking about it.

The disease is under control now in the developed world, but in developing countries it’s a different story.

I work with a program in Uganda that’s fabulous. The dramatic change since anti-retrovirals have gotten to Africa is satisfying, and the stigma is somewhat diminished there, but the price tag will keep going up because each person we start on treatment must stay on it for life. We have to marshal the political resources to say that this is an important-enough problem for the developed economies that they have to pay for it in the developing countries. No way around it.


Stephen Melville is professor of art history at the Ohio State University. In his talk, “Proving the Object,” he reflected on the emergence of art history as an academic discipline in light of his own path from history and philosophy of religions to social thought to literature to, finally, art history.

Someone with such a pan-disciplinary outlook must have felt very at home at Chicago.

The most important places for me were always places like the coffee house in the basement of Swift Hall and the one at the top of Weiboldt. The University in many ways was a set of communicating coffee shops with classes attached. When I was teaching at Syracuse, I would periodically try to persuade the dean that we needed a coffee shop. He was a chemist, and I argued this was as important to the humanists as a lab is to a scientist. He never got over the feeling that I was joking.

Who were your mentors as a student?

As an undergraduate, I transferred from Columbia to study with Mircea Eliade. He and Charles Long were very important to me and, later, Victor Turner. Turner used to have us over to his house to meet every quarter: it was called Myth and Ritual in the autumn, Ritual and Symbol in winter, and Myth and Symbol in the spring. When I was a graduate student, Françoise Meltzer brought me to comparative literature, and Ted Cohen taught me a lot about making sense.

What did Chicago teach you about teaching?

When we were all going on the job market, I had not yet taught. It was a joke among my friends that they couldn’t imagine me teaching. But my fundamental idea of what should happen in the classroom was strongly shaped by Chicago: people should talk about interesting things. Every so often I find one of my teachers’ voices coming out of me and think “Who just said that?”