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UC Prof's Semester at Sea Ends In Evening With Castro

Date: Feb. 1, 2001
Story and photo by: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Archive: General News

Howard Tolley's career-long interest in human rights took an unexpected turn last month when he spent five hours in Cuba listening to Fidel Castro talk.

Tolley, a University of Cincinnati professor of political science, was on sabbatical and serving as a faculty member on the ship-based Semester at Sea program, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh. Howard TolleyCuba was the final stop on a nine-nation itinerary and, for the first time in the program's 30-year history, Castro accepted an invitation to address the visiting students.

Tolley was in the second row for Castro's talk, given at Cuba's National Assembly. More than 1,000 Cuban students of all ages were in attendance, as was Castro's cabinet.

"I had misgivings about the opportunity to meet Castro beforehand," said Tolley, who challenged students before the visit on whether it would be appropriate to greet Castro personally and treat him like a celebrity. "Having said all that, I was quite struck about how well read he was and how well he spoke about things that matter."

Castro still has a deserved reputation as one of the world's great oppressors, Tolley feels, but his visit to Cuba also gave him more understanding of the man and the struggles between Castro and the Cuban people.

"Clearly, Castro is a figure of the 20th century who has had an impact far beyond his tiny country," Tolley said. "He has political skills, and, to many people, he is the devil incarnate. I closed the 'interdependent web' theme of my course by noting the possible impact of the Cuban exile vote in Florida on the outcome of our presidential election."

There were lighter moments during the talk. Castro stood ramrod straight, according to Tolley, never even shuffling his feet. "After three hours, he said, 'I can keep going. I know your ship's departure isn't until 1 p.m. tomorrow, but I know some of you may need to go to the bathroom. Please feel free to get up and come back as you need to." When questioned by a student wondering just how long the talk could go on, Castro responded he once spoke for eight hours straight.

Castro wasn't the only major world figure the students encountered on their trip. While in South Africa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu boarded the ship and delivered an hour-long address. The ship, the S.S. Universe Explorer, spent up to five days in each port, providing ample time for educational trips into each country on the itinerary. The Semester at Sea began in Vancouver Sept. 12 and ended in New Orleans Dec. 22.

Tolley and the other participants visited Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Cuba. Unrest in the Mideast caused a detour from a planned trip through the Suez Canal, canceling visits to Egypt, Turkey, Croatia and Spain.

Tolley was making his second tour of duty with Semester at Sea, having previously taught in 1991. This time, he taught what is referred to as the Core course for the trip, a team-taught multidisciplinary class which meets daily and covers all aspects of each country the students visit. It is the only mandatory course for all students, who take 12-to-15 hour course loads during the semester.

During this trip, Tolley tried to build a shipboard learning community along the lines of UC's Learning Community program for freshmen that began in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences two years ago and has since expanded university-wide.

Faculty were able to use assigned readings from the Core course, and many instructors included a Core writing assignment that was counted toward the Core grade. Tolley said, "It is the same thing we have tried here, with the faculty working together and the students staying together in groups all year."

A second major goal for Tolley on the trip was making contacts for the Teaching Human Rights Online (THRO) program he founded. THRO uses online text exchange and video-conferencing technology to link students of different cultures in human rights exercises. Tolley teaches human rights for the political science department and is a graduate and a fellow of the Urban Morgan Center for Human Rights at the UC College of Law.

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