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Robert Balter (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Balter)

A desire to support and value the pursuit of equity in the liberal arts inspired a gift to encourage diversity in the field of philosophy, on campus and beyond.

Robert Balter, who died in 2007, was honored by his daughter, Rebecca Balter, and widow, Katherine Seligmann, with the Balter Fund for Quality, Diversity and Inclusiveness in Philosophy. This fund pays tribute to his passions for critical thinking and helping underserved populations by supporting diversity in the teaching and learning of philosophy at Carolina and surrounding communities.

Robert grew up in a working-class household in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was determined to put himself through college. He earned a B.A. from Brooklyn College and went on to receive his master’s degree and Ph.D. in philosophy of education from Cornell University. Although his career path took a different turn, he carried with him a love of philosophy and commitment to education.

“My father taught me from a young age that nothing is more valuable and worthwhile than knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge,” Rebecca said, “I think I knew the word ‘epistemology’ as a six-year-old.” After majoring in biology at Columbia University, Rebecca joined the UNC-CH community and earned her Ph.D. in neurobiology in 2013.

Robert also gave his time volunteering in the local community. Rebecca has vivid memories of her father teaching at A Growing Place, the multi-age classroom for Wake County children living in homeless shelters. These early experiences instilled in her the importance of giving back.

Rebecca’s mother Katherine said, “In addition to his community work, Robert was known by friends and family to engage in friendly debates, delighting in playing devil’s advocate and challenging ideas. He would prod and ask questions to encourage others to think through the ethical ramifications of thoughts and actions.”

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Katherine, Rebecca and Robert (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Balter)

To honor her father’s legacy, Rebecca asked Katherine to join her in establishing the Balter Fund to explicitly promote the inclusion of under-represented populations in the philosophy field. “Without such support, it is too easy for the voices of these individuals and the ideas they share to be ignored or silenced,” Rebecca added.

In pursuit of Robert’s vision, the Balter Fund will support faculty and students from minority groups within the field of philosophy to teach, study and learn at Carolina and beyond. The department will host an annual Robert Balter Distinguished Lecture series to provide a unique opportunity for an early career philosopher to build on his or her resume, while adding innovative ideas to the field. Nina Emery, assistant professor of philosophy at Brown University, delivered the inaugural Balter Distinguished Lecture on April 7, 2017, in Caldwell Hall.

“The Balter gift will allow us to support the professional activities of the faculty, graduate students and undergraduates, who help to make us such a diverse, friendly, excellent and inclusive department,” said Marc Lange, chair of the department of philosophy.

Funding will also enhance the department’s existing outreach program, said Lange. Created in 2008, the program introduces the study of philosophy to groups of people who are not familiar with this way of thinking. Seminars, consultations, targeted outreach events and weekly reading groups initiate and cultivate this important awareness, from young students in the classroom to senior citizens in retirement communities and to eager high school and community college students interested in philosophy.

Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, echoes the praise for this unique fund. He said, “As we embrace inclusive excellence across campus, it is more important than ever to promote a philosophical curriculum that welcomes and encourages a rich diversity of faculty and students, and creates a learning environment intentionally focused on the full freedom of inquiry. I’m thrilled to watch this fund grow and extend our commitment to serving the community.”

Rebecca knows her father would be proud that the fund will support a public institution, saying, “He truly believed that high-quality education should be accessible to every person and is necessary for a healthy, well-functioning society. I hope this gift will honor his legacy by increasing the number of people who have access to philosophy and the critical thinking that it teaches you, while adding a diverse set of voices to the field.”

By Erin Kelley ’13 

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