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Unpacking the Podium: Why the Biggest Names Might Not Make the Best Speakers

Opinion | September 23, 2013

In 2012, seventy-five percent of all incoming college freshmen supported marriage equality. Tufts is no different: last April, the Tufts Democrats and Tufts Republicans signed a joint statement in support of marriage equality, and our campus culture evidently reflects support from the larger student body. But Tufts’ next high-profile speaker, Justice Antonin Scalia, has made it repeatedly and vehemently clear that he does not agree.

Not only are Scalia’s views on LGBT rights incongruent with those of the college population in general, they are also at odds with Tufts’ campus culture. We often hear that college is about exposure to new opinions, and visiting lectures are ostensibly one means of doing that. Scalia’s lecture will certainly expose students to someone who will voice opinions that may differ from theirs. Yet, some argue there are problems inherent in providing a platform for a speaker with such intolerant and discriminatory opinions.

But let us set aside that debate momentarily. While it’s important in its own right, and worthy of extensive discussion, there’s a larger, more systemic problem here.

The Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture Series, under which Scalia has been invited to Tufts on October 3rd, “is intended to invigorate the intellectual environment on campus by providing a forum for the presentation of provocative points of view on matters of national and international importance.” Since 2011, speakers have included Anthony Romero, the Executive Director of the ACLU, and famed British historian Niall Ferguson.

Similarly, Tufts’ Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies has sponsored a high-profile namesake lecture series since its establishment in 2002. Speakers have included both of the Clintons and their contemporaries George H.W. Bush and Madeleine Albright, as well as former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

These lectures carried great prestige with them, but lacked an opportunity for serious engagement. Bill Clinton’s 2011 talk was functionally a summary of his newly released book Back to Work, followed by a handful of generic questions from the audience of thousands. Former White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Anthony Romero of the ACLU stated their formal positions on broad, vague issues, and then proceeded to dodge questions during their respective lectures in spring and fall of 2012.

On the other hand, when journalist Christiane Amanpour spoke in April 2013, she candidly answered personal questions and then held a special post-event session specifically for student journalists. Earlier that month, Tufts students were some of the first to see immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas’ short film “Immigration is Documented”—it wasn’t published online until the next day. In September 2012, transgender rights activist Kate Bornstein spoke about a theory of social justice, delving into her own personal narrative, catering her talk to the identities and concerns of Tufts students in the audience, and engaging extensively in student questions and critiques of her lecture. These lectures were promoted and organized around the speakers’ expertise rather than their status or personal prestige.

The differences in the nature of these lectures invoke a deeper question of what the role of the university is in our world of modern, high-speed communications. We live in an era in which information is becoming freer and more accessible. For centuries, the university played a hugely important role in granting students access to otherwise inaccessible information through professors and libraries. Today, however, in an age when Wikipedia doesn’t ask for $60,000 a year and more Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are offered every day, universities are challenged to go further in how they educate their students. One thing they can still provide that communications technology cannot is a space for students and faculty of various backgrounds and interests to innovate and interact creatively.

This changing role affects the way we should think about visiting lectures as well. The argument that bringing a Bill Clinton or an Antonin Scalia to campus would expose the student body to the way in which these powerful figures work could have held in a pre-Internet era, but today, we already know what they will say before they arrive at the Tufts University-branded podium. A Jose Antonio Vargas or a Kate Bornstein, on the other hand, is unencumbered by the expectations of prestige and can offer engaging discourse on their fields of expertise.

Yes, the opinions of Vargas, Amanpour, and Bornstein are more closely aligned with the beliefs of their audiences than those of Scalia will be in October. But to make that critique would be to continue evaluating the quality of the lecture in terms of what information or ideology it exposes. But if we consider the quality of a lecture to be determined by whether it allows students to engage with the speaker’s particular expertise, then the less prestigious lectures succeeded wildly beyond those of Clinton or Romero did, and that of Scalia is likely to.

So if the visiting lecture is losing its usefulness as a means of exposing students to information, then what role do highly prestigious, powerful speakers end up playing?

It is undeniable that one of the key roles of these speakers, whether intentional or otherwise, is to build up the prestige of Tufts as an institution. Clinton and Scalia are two of the most important men in American politics. They carry with them the gravitas of wielded power. When Tufts can release photographs of these powerful men in front of Tufts University logos in Tufts University buildings speaking to a Tufts University audience, its prestige benefits from that power.

Increasing the prestige of our institution does benefit Tufts students in some ways, primarily by adding some metaphorical shine to our degrees. Admissions can use the list of big-name speakers to draw prospective students, surrounding us with peers who might otherwise choose other, similar-caliber colleges. Finally, and cyclically, a more renowned institution can secure more acclaimed speakers. But what increased prestige fails to do is increase the quality of our education.

As exposure to information becomes less and less of a core component of modern higher education, we must critically examine the entire university experience, both inside and outside the classroom, to figure out how these institutions can best educate their students. Hosting powerful, famous speakers who are often simply on glorified book tours, giving repetitive speeches on positions we already know and dodging questions does not contribute significantly to our education. The prestige their presence provides is merely a facade used to sell our institution.

We also ought to recognize that power relations in the transaction between powerful speakers and the university go both ways. Aside from benefiting monetarily, for these speakers to have a list of well-known universities that have hosted them further builds up their status. As we critically consider the role of the university, we must question whether we want Tufts to contribute to this process of reinforcing privilege and power for the sake of increasing our prestige alone.

Lectures in this model do happen all the time at Tufts on a smaller scale, through academic departments and programs, the Lecture and Entertainment Board, and student organizations. These more personal lectures, however, don’t get nearly the same amount of funding and press as the Snyder and Fares speakers require. Reducing the spotlight and resources devoted to the few large-scale lectures could theoretically result in more, better-advertised smaller ones.

Emphasizing this model shows us how we tap into speakers that reflect the diverse intellectual interests and identities of Tufts students. We are all working on building our knowledge, skill-sets, and reflection of vastly different—although often overlapping—interests, and this model helps facilitate that process better than hosting one stop on a lecture circuit where there’s only space for two or three barely-answered questions.

Consider this an appeal to the Tufts University community at large to refocus how we think of visiting lectures. Our university is imbued with the power of using its money, resources, and pulpit wisely, and the more the nature of education changes, the less the model of hosting powerful, large-scale speakers makes sense. Let’s think out of the box when we decide whom to host on campus, with a focus on learning and engagement instead of power and prestige. Many of our academic departments and student groups are already doing some of this—let’s take that model and use it to greater effect in our various university-wide lecture series. A greater number of smaller and more engaging Snyder and Fares lectures may not make headlines like Antonin Scalia will, but they would better serve our interests as an institution of higher education, making the university a more innovative and creative place.