The Arizona Desert Lamp

Guest Speakers

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 1 December 2008

This train of thought began with a post at the blog for the Terrapin Times, a conservative/libertarian publication for the University of Maryland, where nathancontramondi takes issue with the overly sexualized campus culture:

According to the article, “Students lined up two-and-a-half hours early to hear sex educators Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot teach men and women alike how to reach the perfect O . . . .” When was the last time students on the campus of this abysmal excuse for an institution of “higher education” waited patiently for one hundred and fifty minutes to listen to a speaker adjure them assiduously to study the works of Aristotle, Avicenna, or Bacon? Filled an auditorium to listen attentively to a lecture about More’s Utopia? Even knew who Alasdair MacIntyre is?

Oh, come on. To think that we have the audacity to call the Left overly idealist. Ever since the university has existed, the balance between heady intellectualism and raunchy decadence has been a fifty-fifty split; for every tradition of academic excellence, there is a tradition of tailgating, keggers, and sex.

Yet I agree with him in his complaint that the university institutions — whether it be the campus newspaper (his main beef), or the hosts of these events — should know better. If your only knowledge of the UA came from the WildLife section, you’d have to believe that the entire campus consisted of nymphomaniacs and victims of satyrisis (which is not the most ridiculous thesis, but is a false one nonetheless).  Even if you replace the “sex educators” with philosophy scholars, there will still be Friday night. But Friday night does not need to replace Wednesday afternoon.

The role of the university and its various aspects here is try to shift this intellect-debasement spectrum ever-so-slightly towards intellectual pursuits, turning a 50-50 into a 51-49 in favor of higher considerations.

Here at the UA, there are some events that go towards this goal. One of the most exemplary is the College of Science lecture series. Last year’s series, “The Edges of Life,” managed to bring in Ray Kurzweil, who is indubitably one of the smartest and prescient academics in the world today.

However, this model has its limits (although it would be nice to SBS, Humanities, et al start implementing a similar program). As a lecture series, it inhibits students from simply wandering in on a whim — as in, “well, I already missed the first one.” It also is a bit esoteric, and even Kurzweil is still (unfortunately) not known well enough to draw students in.

Other famous visits suffer from a variety of ailments. The Rehnquist Center’s rightly praised events are usually for law students only, and often require registration. The guests that the UA Bookstore brings in are almost always book signings, with very little space for guests in the store and little time for discussion. Furthermore, these events often take place in the middle of the day, when students are at class.

This brings, at long last, to my main complaint: whither art the ASUA Speakers Board? First, let’s look at the mission of the group:

Speakers Board brings nationally recognized speakers to the University of Arizona who present lectures on student concerns and/or entertainment.

In the past Speakers Board has brought a varied array of speakers, as well as presentations, to the university community for the sake of educating, informing, and at times entertaining students and community members alike. The speakers have included authors, poets, Nobel Prize recipients, environmentalists, business leaders, and individuals that are, or at one time have been, in the public eye.

Two years ago, the Board managed to bring in Steve Forbes. Last year, the board brought . . . a hypnotist. No, really. I guess there’s nothing like pseudo-science to stimulate a curious and growing intellectual mind.

This spring, the Wildcat praised James Pennington-McQueen’s proposal to eliminate the Board. On the contrary, the Board represents one of ASUA’s few legitimate functions — to encourage a spirit of inquiry outside of the classroom. It sounds lame, but that belies its importance.

Yet as far as I know, the Speakers Board is essentially a non-entity. There’s no evidence that it had anything to do with the CD-8 debate or the Keith Knight visit, the closest thing that we’ve had to “important figures” on campus this semester. To revitalize this institution, ASUA needs to take a few steps:

Redefine the mission. “Entertainment” is a valid reason to bring in Kanye West; but student government should not just provide bread and circuses. Besides, that whole aforementioned, outside-of-ASUA debauchery provides more than enough entertainment.

Bring in a director who can draw people. There’s one guy I have in mind here: Ezekiel Gebrekidane. Ever since his brief Senate tenure, he’s been a kind of de facto ambassador for affairs on campus, whether it be organizing a debate between the CR president and the county representative for the Obama campaign, or being involved with the Keith Knight situation. He’s charismatic enough, and while I might vehemently disagree with the type of person he might bring, he has the characteristics to bring in someone worthwhile. Also, it’d be nice if he had an official position to back his pseudo-important presence on campus today.

More events. Now, these things cost money; but rather than one big, blockbuster event, the Board could focus on bringing in “cult heroes” that don’t cost as much as an Al Gore, but would provide an equal draw. For someone reason, Chuck Klosterman comes to mind, although I have no idea what he would charge. But college students intellectual interests diverge to a degree from general interests, and the board’s speakers should reflect that.

Provide food. This isn’t for the Board, directly, but for these sorts of engagements broadly. Going back to the lack of demand for a lecture of More’s Utopia, the easiest way to encourage this demand is to provide free food. This should be common sense at a university, but is often forgotten.

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