In 2014, a few New York University and Columbia students had a similar idea. “We wanted to share the knowledge and access to professors we’ve got in New York,” says Inbar Dankner, who was then a business student at NYU. “And we came up with this idea of doing it at local bars.”
They aimed high: their first event was to stage 50 hour-long lectures in 50 bars, all on one night, with topics ranging from neuroscience to music history to philosophy. Neither professor nor bar embraced the idea at first, she says. They had to convince the professors that people would show up and be attentive, and convince bars to close their doors to regular customers for a few hours one evening, with the vague promise that a cadre of new drink-buying customers would stream in.
Neither professor nor bar needed to worry. All 50 venues sold out within 48 hours of the event’s announcement; 5,000 curious drinkers filled the bars around the city that one night. (Tickets were free, but were reserved online in advance.) Afterwards, the organizers were deluged with emails from other universities and students wishing to stage similar events in their cities.
Dankner and others formed a business to organize these, and called it Raising the Bar. They staged a program the next year in San Francisco (with closer to 20 bars), and the next year moved overseas, with events in London, Hong Kong, and Sydney. Australia has been especially keen to expand the program. “In the last year, it’s really exploded,” says Ben Gilden, head of digital and social strategy at Raising the Bar. The crew is currently working with universities in Melbourne and Adelaide on events there, as well as in Auckland, New Zealand. And they’ve twice repeated the New York 50-bar extravaganza.
Raising the Bar’s model calls for universities to pay to underwrite the events, such that tickets for attendees remain free. “It’s a way for universities to engage with their communities in a way they couldn’t before” Gilden says, and move learning out of the classroom and into spaces where people already gather.
The one-hour events also encourage people to sample ideas and concepts that they might ordinarily not be exposed to. Attending doesn’t require a commitment to an entire semester’s run of classes, but offers a low-risk introduction to unfamiliar topics. And you can have a drink or two in the bargain.