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Elliot Sperling Commemoration

On January 29, the world lost one of the leading historians of Tibet and Tibet-China relations when Dr. Elliot Sperling passed away unexpectedly in his native New York City.  His parting has been especially hard for many of his colleagues and students at IU who remember him not only as an outstanding scholar but also as a supportive mentor who always made time in his busy schedule to share his knowledge and ideas with others.  Two of Sperling’s students, Sara Conrad and Elliott Ubelhor, say that Sperling taught them the fundamentals of scholarship and inspired them to pursue Tibetan Studies.

Conrad, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies, met Dr. Sperling when she was enrolled in his “Tibet and the West” course.  She was a first-year graduate student and she says the impact he made on her life is immeasurable.  He was easily accessible and always willing to lend Conrad his ear. “I could always stick my head in his office and ask about a source or an author – and of course he had the answer. I could also talk to him about life, politics, movies, and music,” Conrad said.  “The day after the 2016 election, he was the first person I emailed to ask how to keep going, to keep teaching about Tibet, and how to comprehend what happened. He always helped me.”

Sperling later became the chair of her thesis committee and was co-chair of her dissertation committee at the time of his passing. Conrad remembers him as being a walking encyclopedia whose in-depth knowledge expanded many realms.  “I can’t think of another Tibetologist who knows everything about history, politics, religion, and modern Tibet,” she said.  “There was nothing he didn’t know about, nothing I couldn’t come to him and ask about.”

Even outside of the university, Sperling was supportive of Conrad, attending her son’s dance recitals and piano performances.  When Conrad was doing fieldwork in New York City about second generation Tibetans that live there, Sperling offered to be her personal guide. She pointed out that he used to be a New York City taxi driver.  “He took time to show me around the city – showing me every single Tibetan restaurant and shop to make sure I had every resource available, while giving me a complete history of Manhattan,” she said about the venture.

This semester, Conrad is teaching the same “Tibet and the West” course that she took with Dr. Sperling.  She says teaching it brings back memories.  “I find myself using similar stories, films, and books,” she said about teaching the class.  “I hear him when I lecture.”

Elliott Ubelhor, an undergraduate student in Central Eurasian Studies, said he always had an interest in Tibet. It was Sperling’s influence, however, that inspired him to pursue the subject further.  “He and his classes helped set me on the path that I am currently on,” said Ubelhor, who is also minoring in Religious Studies, Art History, and Chinese.  “It’s because of his classes that I am doing Tibetan Studies and plan to pursue an academic career in the field.”

Ubelhor was a freshman when he met Sperling. He said Sperling always treated everyone as equals, regardless of their age or academic rank. It was this quality that made Sperling an excellent professor.  “He always emphasized placing people within the human experience regardless of title, status, or background,” Ubelhor said.   “No one is above criticism, and no one is unworthy of praise. I always thought that was an important thing to take into account when studying history.”

Dr. Sperling spent over four decades at IU, first as a student and later as a faculty member in 1987.  He studied modern and classical Tibetan under Takster Rinpoche, eldest brother of the Dalai Lama.  Sperling’s doctoral dissertation, titled “Early Ming Policy Toward Tibet,” is considered a staple in Tibetan research.

Sperling became notorious for his no-nonsense criticism of Beijing’s policies in Tibet and for being a champion of human rights.  He was very vocal in his support for Illham Tohti, a Uighur economics professor who was arrested by Beijing while enroute to IU and charged with “separatism.” Sperling’s condemnation of Tohti’s imprisonment put him in the national spotlight and saw him banned from China.  However, the “canceled” stamp across Sperling’s Chinese visa never stopped him from expressing his outrage at what he saw as Beijing’s attempt to censure scholars. He told the New York Times in 2014 that he would not be deterred by being blacklisted.   “I have done nothing wrong except to dissent — vociferously, I admit, but still I use only words — and have no intention of conforming to authoritarian norms for the sake of a visa,” Sperling reportedly said.

Students of Dr. Sperling gathered for a memorial service in his honor at Bloomington's Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center. From left to right: Ben Michaels, Gendun Rabsal, Sara Conrad, Lee JiYoung, Katie Ottoway, Elliott Ubelhor (Standing), and Tenzin Tsepak.