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The Daily Tar Heel

Great Decisions Makes Better, Well-Informed Global Citizens

Leave it to big thinkers like the folks in Carolina's Great Decisions program to take on the world's most pressing issues -- like war in Africa, which has claimed 1.3 million lives since 1998 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone. The for-credit, student-run lecture series on foreign policy will cap a remarkable year by bringing two of the world's foremost experts on African conflict to speak to the UNC community tomorrow.

Thankfully, new Provost Robert Shelton was also thinking big when he decided to provide funding to ensure that Great Decisions will draw high-profile speakers on global issues for years to come. In a shrinking world, a global education is increasingly important -- something the new University administration has wisely recognized.

Now in its 20th year at UNC, Great Decisions has more than 300 students enrolled for one hour of pass/fail credit. Another 50 or more guests typically attend the program's eight lectures, which are free and open to the public. Audiences have been getting more than their money's worth lately, making the program a sound investment for the University.

This year's speakers included Scott Ritter, the outspoken former weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq who spoke about U.S. relations with the troublesome country. With faltering international support for the trade sanctions against Iraq, high oil prices and a new U.S. president with close ties to the Gulf War, the issue has countless implications.

The program also landed Dr. James Sherry, the director of program development for UNAIDS, the United Nations wing dedicated to addressing the AIDS epidemic. Sherry is among the world's experts on the AIDS crisis, which can't be dismissed after claiming nearly 3 million lives and infecting another 3.8 million in Africa last year.

And there was the lecture about U.S. policy toward China by Sidney Rittenberg, a Tar Heel alumnus and former UNC professor. His bio lists him as the only American ever admitted to the Chinese Communist Party, working with Mao Zedong before spending 16 years in solitary confinement in China as a political prisoner.

Tomorrow's event features another impressive lineup that includes former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen and Vasu Gouden, the founder of an African conflict resolution group. Not only was Cohen the ranking U.S. official for African issues, reporting to the secretary of state and the president, but he was later the representative of the late Congo leader Laurent Kabila in Washington, D.C. The Great Decisions folks would be pleased to see you at 7 p.m. in Carroll Hall auditorium if you know anything about African conflict -- and thrilled if you don't.

There is no other class at this University that offers so much life experience and expertise on such a wide range of important topics; yet funding for the program was never certain until Shelton stepped in last month, pledging to fund the program indefinitely at just under its 2001 operating budget.

The move followed Chancellor Moeser's installation-speech announcement of his intention to give every student the opportunity to have an "international experience." He hasn't found the money to send 18,000 undergraduates abroad just yet, so programs like Great Decisions will play a crucial role in bringing "abroad" to Carolina.

Future plans call for a new building that would house all of Carolina's international-minded efforts, including the study abroad offices and the international studies department. Likewise, plans are in the works to establish a sort of UNC "embassy" at various locations abroad. The idea would be to create something more intense and permanent than traditional study abroad programs, and the ventures would be placed in areas off the beaten track of traditional international travel.

These are all moves in the right direction, as students must be increasingly aware of the world beyond the United States in an increasingly globalized world.

Advances in communication and transportation have made isolation impossible, and the University must adapt to educate its students as world citizens.

Rittenberg learned that lesson as a student here. When asked how he managed to survive his lengthy prison term, he said he couldn't think about himself -- after all, he had little going for him. Instead, the trick was to worry about others and the bridge he was building between two countries and two cultures, he said. That concern for other people and a greater purpose was a lesson he learned more than 50 years ago "right here in Chapel Hill at UNC," he announced proudly.

By supporting programs like Great Decisions, the University can be proud of its tradition of educating students to be citizens.

Brandon Briscoe is a senior journalism and mass communication major from New Orleans and member of the Great Decisions coordinating committee. Reach him at

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