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School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs Potter Memorial Lecture in Philosophy

54th Frank Fraser Potter Memorial Lecture in Philosophy

“Criminal justice, mass incarceration, and the undermining of democracy”
By Dr. Christia Mercer
  Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University
March 30, 2017  •  7:00 p.m.
216  Todd Hall, WSU Pullman


Christia Mercer

Christia Mercer is a leading thinker on current issues of criminal justice reform and access to higher education. The Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, she is also general editor of Oxford Philosophical Concepts and co-editor of Oxford New Histories of Philosophy, a book series devoted to making philosophy more inclusive. She has published widely in the history of philosophy and is involved in activist causes with special interest in rethinking criminal justice and access to higher education.

“The United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its incarcerated people. With roughly 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, mass incarceration affects millions of lives, disrupting families and decimating communities,” says Mercer.

“This lecture offers an overview of the prison industrial complex, displays some of its far-reaching effects, proposes that mass incarceration is undermining our democracy, and concludes that our criminal justice system must be rethought.”

Mercer was the first professor to teach in prison through Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative. Her numerous awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, as well as Columbia’s top two teaching awards, the 2008 Columbia College Great Teacher Award, and the 2012 Mark van Doren Award, which annually recognizes a professor for “commitment to undergraduate instruction, as well as for humanity, devotion to truth and inspiring leadership.”

The Potter Lecture will be preceded by a Foley Institute Coffee & Politics discussion of gender and the criminal justice system at noon in 308 Bryan Hall.

Events cosponsors include the WSU Philosophy Club, Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, and College of Arts and Sciences.

Since 1959, the Potter Lecture has engaged nationally and internationally prominent philosophers to speak to WSU audiences. This 54th Potter Lecture supports the university’s work in addressing large societal problems through its interdisciplinary Grand Challenges research initiatives, particularly the challenge of promoting a just and equitable society.


Frank Fraser Potter (1879–1959)


Frank Potter earned his doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Michigan and taught in New York and Kentucky before coming in 1912 to what was then Washington State College. At WSC, he taught Latin, Greek, and Italian, as well as philosophy. In 1949, shortly before his retirement, he was instrumental in the founding of the college’s Department of Philosophy.

Frank Potter is especially remembered for his concern for students. The home of Frank and Irene Potter was the gathering place for groups of students and faculty who met to discuss issues and ideas, listen to music, and share their experience of the liberal arts.

Particularly notable was Professor Potter’s preparation of students applying for Rhodes Scholarships. Ten of his students won that most prestigious award, a unique achievement for which the International Rhodes Scholarship Office cited the Potters.

Professor Potter stood firmly in the Greek tradition in his conviction that logical analysis and clear thinking are the tools of wisdom, in his tracking of an idea to its ultimate presuppositions, in his conception of reality as a stately edifice of timely essences, in his moral seriousness tempered with irony, in his opposition to whatever is fragmentary and provincial in thought, and in his insistence that life should form a unified whole.

The Lectureship

The Frank Fraser Potter Memorial Lectureship was initiated shortly after his death in 1959 by an anonymous gift from a former student.

This generous donation supported the initial lecture, given in 1961 by Antony Flew of Oxford University, as well as several succeeding addresses by equally outstanding philosophers.

The Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, forerunner to the College of Liberal Arts (now the College of Arts and Sciences), lent support on several occasions, and the lectureship is currently sustained by an endowment accumulated over the years with donations by the friends and colleagues of the Potters.

View the complete list of past Potter lecturers here