NEH Chair William Adams
For William D. Adams, witnessing the Vietnam War up close as an infantry adviser raised fundamental questions that have shaped his career as a philosopher, teacher, college president, and currently as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A video of the remarks is available at

University of Iowa International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill, in introducing Adams’ lecture on “Creativity and the Common Good” Thursday, Aug. 27 to a packed house in the Art Building West auditorium, quoted him as once saying his wartime experience “made me serious in a certain way…and I came face to face acutely with questions that writers, artists, philosophers and musician examine in their work, starting with, ‘what does it mean to be human?’”

Merrill said that question continues to shape the arts and humanities to this day, and that the UI has thrived over the past 50 years because of support from the NEH, a a major funder of humanities scholarship at the UI.  He also noted that in the audience was Adams’ predecessor as NEH chair, former Congressman and current visiting law professor and senior scholar Jim Leach.

“The NEH, like its sister organization the National Endowment for the Arts, celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall,” Merrill said, “and it is clear that our artistic and intellectual lives would be severely impoverished without the dynamic work that these agencies which have inspired countless artists and writers, filmmakers and scholars, teachers and students to explore matters near and far, world within and without.”

Adams, delivering the first in a series of planned lectures and activities called Creative Matters, credited the creative imagination with fueling historic leaps in science and said that exposure to important work in the humanities “enriches our imaginations, especially our moral imaginations.”

He said that Walter Isaacson, biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, noted during the NEH’s esteemed Jefferson Lecture in 2014 that the creative energy that drives all discovery comes from the same place in the human spirit.

“There’s a fundamental unity of creative intelligent across the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences,” Adams said, quoting Isaacson.

Adams also talked about the “imaginative leaps” taken by two historic figures he admires, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and French painter Paul Cézanne, the subject of a forthcoming book Adams is authoring.

He said Cézanne’s “disruptive idea” and major contributions as a painter were not just going outside and meeting nature up close, as opposed to bringing nature into the studio, but recording in paint the way nature impressed his senses over a long period of close and concentrated attention.

“The case for the creative imagination is not just that is helps assure the forward movement of science and technology and other disciplines, which of course it does,” Adams concluded. “I also think it’s powerfully true that the creative imagination shapes the positive and forward movement of culture itself… culture as the common and interconnected world that permits us to engage one another.”

On Friday, Aug. 28, Adams toured the UI Center for the Book and watched a demonstration of historical papermaking; visited the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; met with a UI Veterans Writing Workshop; and met with UI Press and Iowa Review representatives.

A native of Birmingham, Mich., and son of an auto industry executive, Adams earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Colorado College and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz History of Consciousness Program. He studied in France as a Fulbright Scholar before beginning his career in higher education with appointments to teach political philosophy at Santa Clara University in California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He went on to coordinate the Great Works in Western Culture program at Stanford University and to serve as vice president and Secretary of Wesleyan University. He became president of Bucknell University in 1995 and president of Colby College in 2000, where he served until his retirement in 2014, when he became NEH chair.

Creative Matters is an initiative of the UI Arts Advancement Committee and is sponsored by the UI Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.

Five speakers have been confirmed so far, and detailed information is available online at

All events are free and open to the public.

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development provides resources and support to researchers and scholars at the University of Iowa and to businesses across Iowa with the goal of forging new frontiers of discovery and innovation and promoting a culture of creativity that benefits the campus, the state, and the world. More at, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover. 

Photo Caption: NEH Chair William D. Adams (center) is flanked by UI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Daniel Reed (left) and former NEH Chair and UI law professor Jim Leach (Justin Torner, UI Office of Strategic Communication)