March 30: Criminal justice, prisons focus of philosophy talks

By Adriana Aumen, College of Arts & Sciences

PULLMAN, Wash. – Criminal justice, mass incarceration and factors that undermine democracy will be examined during the Frank Fraser Potter Memorial Lecture in Philosophy and a related talk at Washington State University on Thursday, March 30.

Christia Mercer, professor of philosophy at Columbia University and justice and education activist, will deliver the free, public lecture at 7 p.m. in Todd Hall, room 216. She will take part in a Foley Institute Coffee & Politics Series discussion of gender and the criminal justice system at noon in Bryan Hall, room 308.

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

“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,” she said.

Mercer is a leading thinker on issues of criminal justice reform and access to higher education, said Matt Stichter, associate professor in the WSU School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs (, primary sponsor of the events.

“It’s important for people to learn about our prison system and avoid the trap of thinking the United States is just being ‘tough’ on crime,” he said.

Mercer is the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, 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.

She 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 Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, as well as Columbia’s top teaching honors: 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.”

Cosponsors of the events 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.


News media contacts:
Matt Stichter, WSU School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, 509-335-7121,
Adriana Aumen, WSU College of Arts and Sciences ( communications, 509-335-5671,