Student Government (SG) recently announced its allocation decisions for the $40,000 pilot New Initiatives Fund (NIF). Of the four project proposals to be funded, one—bringing former Clinton adviser James Carville to campus—is distinct from the rest. Sponsoring new initiatives and bringing big speakers to campus are two separate goals and, as such, ought to exist as two separately funded entities.
Support for a big speakers fund has been bubbling under the surface for some time, as a campus survey and the campaign promises of various SG slates have indicated strong student interest. Sticker shock has been easily the most persuasive deterrent, as big speakers aren’t cheap. Many can be had for somewhere in the $20,000–$50,000 range, but really high-profile speakers—like Jon Stewart or Bill Clinton—charge as much as $100,000 and $150,000, respectively.
SG has elected to write a check for $26,000, more than half of the $40,000 NIF, to Carville. The pundit will be speaking at the Progressive Gala, an annual UCDems event, thanks in part to ORCSA allocations and a portion of your student activities fee.
The NIF was designed to improve student life on campus by funding innovative, independent projects proposed by students. Projects like the dog park, native plants garden, and wind turbine that are also being sponsored by the Fund seem to be, if a little off-beat, better attempts at fulfilling this purported goal. Carville is likely to dazzle his audience for an hour or so, but his leftward politics and big price tag have raised the eyebrows of the Maroon.
The University will continue to feel the impact of the other three NIF proposals long after Carville has gone. These truly are innovative new initiatives that likely would not have received funding from other sources. Spending a lot of money on a bigwig for an already annual event hosted by a prominent student organization isn’t that innovative. Both of these things—encouraging creative minds on campus to dream up “innovative new initiatives” and bringing big-name speakers to campus—are in high demand at the University. However, the two are very different in spirit.
The Maroon believes that the U of C can have its cake and eat it too, by divorcing the goals of the NIF from allocations made for big speakers. Instituting a fund that exists solely to bring high-profile speakers to campus would create an infrastructure that fosters ideological equity and addresses partisan demands from all sides. This division would free up the NIF to fund projects better aligned with the innovative ambitions and creativity originally envisioned.
It is common practice among peer institutions to shell out big money for big appearances, and since our own student body has demonstrated interest in doing the same, there is little reason not to follow suit. The University is already in the habit of spending a lot of money on entertainment events booked by the Major Activities Board, and the going rate for speakers like Carville cannot be avoided. An independent big speakers fund could be student-run and under the guidance of University officials, and there are plenty of ways, such as corporate sponsorship or alumni donations, to augment financial allocations for such a fund.
While SG did suggest in the NIF application that bringing a big speaker to campus is a valid project proposal, this suggestion was attempting to meet two demands—sponsoring new initiatives and luring big speakers—with one chunk of money. Both demands are legitimate, but they would be met more successfully as two separate funds.
As with any fledgling pilot program, ample time will be taken to review both the ends and the means of the NIF, and it is our hope that reviewers involved will look back on the year and say: Let them eat cake.