Speaking out

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September 3, 2010

2:04 AM

Let’s face it: Williamsburg is a town in need of excitement. It’s pretty bad when students actually eagerly await for a mild hurricane to pass through. So, we were pleased to see that the Student Assembly has chosen to bring a little excitement, in the form of renowned author Christopher Hitchens, to campus. Hitchens has been invited to speak at the College later this month, in order to debate government professor Lawrence Wilkerson. We are always glad to see high-profile speakers and intellectuals come to the College — we only wish it would happen more often.

Thankfully, we think there’s a way it can. This decision, conveniently, comes as the SA decides how to handle a budget overflow in its Consolidated Reserve account, which it has promised to reduce starting this year. We believe Hitchens’s invitation to speak could be the first step toward a responsible solution to that problem: establishing a campus speaker series.

As it is, the Consolidated Reserve — a fund that collects all funds amassed from student activites fees, including those not spent in previous years — has swelled to roughly $180,000, the majority of which will be passed on to future years, unused. SA President Chrissy Scott ’12 ran on the platform of reducing the Consolidated Reserve to manageable levels, but as of yet there exists no firm plan for how that result might be reached.

Of course, reducing the reserve without egregiously wasting student funds is easier said than done. Even just lowering the activities fee (just recently raised this March from $87 to $89) would be a poor choice, ultimately. The excess funds the SA has been left to appropriate represent an enormous opportunity, to enhance both current students’s college experiences and the institution’s long-term reputation. Simply negating that opportunity would be counterproductive.

Other methods proposed, by Scott and by others, include setting an arbitrary cap on the funds and immediately spending all money in excess of that cap. But this plan assumes, or ignores, what is probably its most essential aspect: To what purpose would those excess funds go?

Establishing a speaker series to invite figures like Hitchens to appear on a regular basis would be an effective and sensible use of excess reserve funds. There’s certainly a precedent set among other Virginia colleges. The University of Virginia for example, as a part of their U. Va Newsmakers speaker series, has hosted such figures as the Dalai Lama, Tom Wolfe and Rigoberta Menchu.

A reputation for hosting high-profile speakers is a valuable recruiting tool for prospective students — providing an easily quotable fact for campus tour guides — but it also helps lend a university the impression of being a focal point of academic discourse. That reputation, more so than any other fleeting initiative SA could otherwise support, is something well worth fostering.

Of course, the College hasn’t exactly been slacking on the thought-provoking speakers front. In 2007, the College invited author Junot Díaz to campus; that same year, the College also hosted the Future for Democracy Conference, at which a slew of influential public figures, including Jim Lehrer and Sandra Day O’Connor, spoke.

But these and other similar speaking events have generally been decentralized, and for good reason.
Speaking events are not a minimal expenditure, especially for well-known figures. Hitchens, for example, charges a speaking fee of $15,000 per engagement. Currently, funds for speaker fees are accumulated on an incidental basis, many times by individual departments at the College. That incidental nature leaves it to the organization inviting the speaker to publicize the event. Most do an admirable job, of course, but there’s only so much flyer-ing one can do. Often, the news doesn’t spread further than to a particular organization or department — or to whomever happened to by passing by the Sadler Center public posting board.

The SA is in a perfect position to ensure these speakers recur on a regular basis. A committee, made up of both students and faculty, could be selected on a rotating basis to solicit speakers. It would be up to the SA both to decide the budget and scope of the series, and that choice would decide the “scale” of those involved (we’re not expecting any former presidents). But whatever the size, it would be a wonderful and well-received addition to the campus discourse. Speakers like Hutchins don’t come along often, but in the future, perhaps they could.

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