|March 3, 2005
University reaches for a higher profile
by Kevin Miller
The Roanoke Times
The Rev. Al Sharpton. Jesse Ventura. Saddam Hussein's personal assistant. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Weisel.
Not exactly names you'd typically group together. But each of these sought-after individuals--along with former astronauts and some of today's best-known political commentators--either have come or will soon travel to Blacksburg to deliver speeches at Virginia Tech. And all of the speeches are open to the public.
"I think it's fair to say we probably have not seen this many high-profile speakers in a long time," Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said Wednesday.
So what's driving this recent surge in household-name speakers at Tech? Part of the reason is pure chance. But the bigger factor seems to be a growing interest in collaboration among organizations that individually could not scrape together enough money to afford these high-priced names.
Wednesday night's speech by Sharpton is a good example.
Members of Tech's Black Student Alliance were interested in bringing the often-controversial and always-extravagant political activist to Tech but needed financial help. So BSA leaders turned to the Virginia Tech Union, which is responsible for most of the concerts, performances, and speeches on campus.
VTU officials said they are barred under contract from disclosing the speaker's fee paid to Sharpton, who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004.
Jeff Duresky, VTU's director of speakers, said the organization is also co-sponsoring (and therefore co-paying) for the speech by professional wrestler-turned-governor Ventura on March 15, as well as the April 13 event with Wiesel. Duresky said the speech by Wiesel--a Holocaust survivor and acclaimed author who won the Nobel Peace Prize--is supported by contributions from more than a dozen campus organizations, from Hillel to a new speaker's fund established on campus.
"Instead of trying to go it alone and bring them to campus, which we still do ... this semester other groups have come to us with ideas," Duresky said.
Two days after Ventura's appearance, Tech will host one of America's true odd couples of politics: Democratic strategist and pundit James Carville and Republican strategist Mary Matalin. The couple is appearing as part of Tech's annual Cutchins Distinguished Lecture series.
Previous speakers in the series, which is put on by the Pamplin College of Business, include former Secretary of State Colin Powell, nationally syndicated columnist George Will, and long-time White House adviser David Gergen.
Bob Denton, who helps select the Cutchins speakers as the director of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Rice Center for Leader Development, said he believes the popularity and celebrity status of the on-campus speakers appears to have increased this year. But high-profile speakers come at a cost: often between $35,000 and $70,000 for a single event, Denton said.
"If you want to play, you have to pay," said Denton, a communications professor.
Hincker, Tech's spokesman, said he eliminated a Distinguished Speakers Series at Tech during the mid-1990s in large part because he felt it was no longer justifiable to spend more than $30,000 on one speech while the rest of the university grappled with tight budgets and even layoffs.
But Hincker said big-name speakers can help promote the "discussion of ideas" central to the university's mission, as well as help with public relations. They also draw the larger community onto campus.
"That's how the university can really drive the intellectual vitality of the surrounding community," Hincker said.
Of course, paying political celebrities to talk on campus carries some risks too. George Mason University officials recently canceled an appearance by "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore, arguing Moore's $35,000 fee was too high. But some faculty claim the decision had more to do with complaints GMU officials received from conservative state legislators than with the previously agreed-upon fee.
In January, the honorary society Phi Beta Kappa cited the Moore event's cancellation when rejecting George Mason for admission.