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Remembering Secretary Madeleine Albright

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Jon Stone

Media Relations Manager

Jon Stone

News  •
In the World  •
Madeleine Albright

On March 23, the University of Denver lost a beloved member of the community — former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The daughter of Josef Korbel, the former dean, founder and namesake for the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Albright and her family have had an enduring impact on the DU campus. Fritz Mayer, current dean of the Korbel School, answered a few questions for the DU Newsroom about the former secretary and her lasting legacy.

Since arriving at DU, you had the opportunity to get to know Secretary Albright and her family. Is there a favorite memory of her that you can share?

Of course, it was an amazing experience to talk with Secretary Albright about world affairs — she had stories about every major figure in the world — but my favorite memory of Madeleine is a personal one, sitting with her in her office in Washington and talking about her family and her experience as a refugee coming to America and to Denver. For the Korbel family, Denver was a revelation, a wonderful city that took them in and embraced them after they fled Czechoslovakia. She said her mother often said there were two great cities in the world: Prague and Denver! As the son of a refugee myself, the Korbel family story resonated deeply with me. Our families shared a deep gratitude for the possibilities of America, for all its flaws, and an acute awareness of how precious the American experience is.

The Korbel family has had a lasting impact on campus. Can you share your thoughts about that?

You will not be surprised when I say that Josef Korbel’s impact on DU starts with the Korbel School of International Studies. It really is remarkable that the University of Denver is home to one the world’s great schools of international affairs. There is nothing like it anywhere between the East and West coasts, and that is in very large measure to the achievement of Korbel. Of course, his impact goes well beyond the school that bears his name, to DU’s long commitment to being an internationally connected university and indeed to the ways in which the Korbel School and DU connect the city of Denver to the world.   

Many students and alums have been fortunate enough to hear Albright speak at events here on campus. Why was it so important for her to continue to visit the DU campus and connect with students?

Madeleine loved to connect with students. She had a deep passion for inspiring students to see their potential to make a difference in the world. And she was particularly passionate about helping women interested in international careers rise in what had long been a male-dominated field. She was a role model for all of us, but, as so many prominent women in international affairs have testified in the last few days, she was a pathbreaker for all who followed, a tiny giant — tough, smart, funny, focused, fearless and tireless — a remarkable woman who ran circles around the many men who underestimated her.

When you think about what's happening in our world today when it comes to democracy and conflict, what advice did the secretary share — through words or actions — that everyone could learn from?

There was no more clear-eyed commentator on the world scene, no one more focused on the great contest between autocracy and democracy now unfolding. Madeleine’s life experience with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union enabled her to see autocrats for what they are and to recognize the threat that they pose, not just to the United States, but to all who care about human rights, the rule of law and the principle of self-determination. Her 2018 book, Fascism: A Warning, saw the storm clouds gathering, and in her last essay published only a month ago in The New York Times, she foresaw what we are witnessing today in Ukraine. The lesson for all of us is that we are all stewards of a fragile experiment in democratic governance, and that democracy cannot be taken for granted, elsewhere around the world or in this country.

As faculty and students return this week to campus from break, how would you encourage them to remember and honor Secretary Albright?

There is so much for all of us to remember and to honor about Secretary Albright, but if I had to single out a few ways, I would highlight three: to aspire to her grit and fearlessness in refusing to be intimidated or to be silenced in pursuit of what is right; to emulate her fundamental humanity and empathy for the persecuted and the disadvantaged; and to recognize her demonstration that a life of purpose is a life in service to others. And for our students, in particular, I would urge them to dream big, as Madeleine did, and to know that you can come from Denver and change the world.