April 15, 2011

Speech impediment

The University should bring well-known speakers to campus

One week ago, we asked candidates running in the SG election to campaign a higher number of more high-profile speakers on campus. That issue is as relevant as ever this weekend, when students, faculty, and other Chicagoans join in Mandel Hall for the independently-run TEDxUChicago event. While it is a treat to have 15 speakers from around the world converge in a day-long conference, it’s interesting that the most important speaking event of the year has been organized almost entirely by students, with minimal University involvement.

In an op-ed article in today’s Maroon, Vice President of Campus Life Kimberly Goff-Crews elaborates on the University as a promoter of free inquiry. One example of how the U of C facilitates this environment is through the “invitation of speakers, performers and visiting scholars who represent a diverse array of strongly held viewpoints, along with the expectation that they will be open to questions and dialogue.” While the Editorial Board agrees with the importance of Goff-Crews’s point, we disagree that the University has kept its end of the bargain.

Though speakers from all fields are constantly at the University, these events are mostly organized by various departments and RSOs which target specific, smaller groups of students. University-wide speakers serve a fundamentally different purpose: In their public profile, renown, and crossover-appeal, they are meant to unite the campus intellectually and instigate a community-wide dialogue. Students are attracted to past speakers, like Bill Gates, because of their experience, wisdom, and universal relevance. These factors provide some of the most insightful out-of-the-classroom opportunities an undergraduate can experience.

In past years, it was unusual if a quarter went by without a famous speaker giving a talk. Last year alone, students packed Rockefeller Chapel and Mandel Hall to hear Jane Goodall, Henry Paulson, Ehud Olmert, and Howard Zinn, just to name a few. The University has always embraced the value of open discourse, and having well-known speakers on campus, especially in events free to students, is one of the best ways the U of C has lived up to this principle. But this year, there has not yet been a speaker on campus to attract a large audience. The TEDx talks, which show just how much student initiative can accomplish, will still cost $20 to attend, repelling many students.

Hopefully, the University will line up a memorable speaker before the quarter ends. University-wide speakers are a unique aspect of our education, and one that should not be taken for granted. The U of C should not be outsourcing its duty as a facilitator of free inquiry to student-run organizations that may or may not charge students out of pocket. Having this Sunday be the best-attended speaking event of the year would be underwhelming, not because the event itself is lackluster, but because we’ve come to expect so much more from the University.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional editorial board member.