Award-winning novelist Ben Lerner will visit campus in April for the annual event

Deborah Lynch (BA, ’70, English) has always considered her time at the University of Illinois to be the foundation of her career. That’s why she has sponsored the Greenfield Lynch Endowed Lecture series to highlight Jewish American literature and literary studies. The next installment of the series is on Thursday, April 4, when recognized poet and novelist Ben Lerner will speak on campus.

Lynch, a Danville, Illinois, native, has sponsored the annual lecture series since 2017 in honor of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Michael Greenfield, and her late daughter, Samantha. The series has brought to campus several individuals who are influential within the Jewish literary sphere, such as Nicole Krauss, James Friedman, Sarah Phillips Casteel, and Stephen Zipperstein. 

The series is jointly organized between the Department of English and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society.

Lynch still reminisces on the formative experience she had on campus as a student. She transferred to the University of Illinois from the University of Wisconsin at the beginning of her junior year, and she soon began working closely with faculty in the Department of English. She helped teach rhetoric classes.

After earning her degree, Lynch worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., including serving as managing editor of the international environmentalist journal DIVERSITY. The magazine received the Vavilov Medal, one of the Russian government's highest honors, for its work on seed banks.

She wanted a way to honor her late family members while also doing something meaningful for her alma mater and the humanities. That led to the idea of sponsoring a lecture series at the U of I.

“It just dawned on me one day that maybe I could do something through the English department because I had such fond memories of my time there. I'm Jewish and I have a lot of interests in Jewish writers and Holocaust literature,” Lynch said. “I hope very much that (the series) can stir interest and support.”

The series is a celebration of the discoveries brought through the liberal arts and promotes higher learning around Jewish culture. The lecture topics vary; for example, in 2019 Nicole Krauss, author of acclaimed novels such as “Man Walks into a Room,” “The History of Love,” “Great House,” and “Forest Dark,” spoke at Spurlock Museum before a large crowd. In 2021 Sarah Phillips Casteel, English professor at Carleton University, presented “Outside the Frame: The Josef Nassy Collection, the Sephardic Caribbean, and the boundaries of Holocaust Art” regarding how the Nassy art collection expands understanding of the Holocaust.

The April 4 lecture will feature Ben Lerner, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and also the National Book Award for Poetry. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Foundations and was named a distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College in 2016. He is author of the widely acclaimed 2019 novel “The Topeka School,” with his latest publication, a book of poetry called “The Lights,” published in 2023 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Brett Ashley Kaplan, professor of comparative and world literature and director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies, who organizes the series, said that the event gives students and faculty exposure to new kinds of thinking, voices, and outlets of creative expression.

“I hope that this series will continue to galvanize people towards reading fiction and learning about Jewish literature more broadly,” Kaplan said. “This event series has brought in large audiences from across the community, campus, and beyond and we very much hope to continue to host these dynamic lectures. We are so grateful to Deborah Lynch for her vision in offering this vibrant series to our campus and community.”

Part of Lynch’s motivation is to help the study of liberal arts and humanities persevere.

“We cannot give up on liberal arts, particularly literature, because without it, I really feel we're doomed,” Lynch said. “It’s humanity. It’s what keeps us all together.”


Editor’s note: The next Greenfield Lynch Endowed Lecture, featuring novelist Ben Lerner, will be at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4, at 210 Levis Faculty Center. For more details, please visit our calendar event page. This article was originally published by the College of LAS.