Excerpt from Inside Higher Ed
A Dorm of Their Own
December 10, 2012
by Elizabeth Redden
Alan Lightman is the rare professor who has published on relativistic plasmas and also has a book deal with Pantheon. A professor of the practice of the humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lightman is a trained astrophysicist who has published six novels – including the New York Times bestseller Einstein’s Dreams – a book of poetry, and more than 10 nonfiction books, ranging from essay collections to popular science to physics textbooks. His most recent book, Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, was published in January; his essay, “Our Place in the Universe,” is featured in the latest issue of Harper’s.
It would be enough to keep most people busy. But for the better part of the last decade, Lightman has devoted half his time to humanitarian work. He is the founding director of the Harpswell Foundation, which seeks to expand access to higher education and provide leadership training to talented young women in Cambodia.
“It was partly accidental and partly not accidental,” the 64-year-old Lightman says of how the foundation got started. “I knew that I wanted to do some humanitarian work later in life, but this happened sooner than I was planning.”
It happened, Lightman says, when he and his daughter, Elyse, traveled to Cambodia in December 2003. While there, Lightman met a woman who told him that when she was attending university in the mid-'90s in the capital city of Phnom Penh, she and six other female students slept in the six-foot-deep crawl space beneath a university building. (In Cambodia, buildings are elevated on stilts because of the monsoons.)
Lightman was struck by the woman’s courage and her commitment to getting a higher education. And he became aware of an underlying problem: while most of Cambodia’s universities are in Phnom Penh, only 10 percent of the country’s population lives there. The universities do not provide housing.
“If you’re a woman living in the countryside, no matter how smart you are, if you don’t have a place to live in Phnom Penh, you’re out of luck,” says Lightman. He explains that while men can live in Buddhist pagodas while pursuing a college education, this option is not open for women. Furthermore, he says, even if a woman’s family can afford to rent her an apartment in Phnom Penh, concerns about safety often preclude them from doing so.