Early in my career in higher education, I was responsible for planning and delivering a speakers’ series at a small midwestern college. Each spring, we sought suggestions for possible speakers, contacted agents, negotiated dates and signed contracts. When the fall rolled around, we distributed glossy flyers and purchased ads in the student and local newspapers touting our upcoming series of speakers--some well-known, some less so, but all worthy of attention.
As dates for these speakers approached, I prayed for good weather and decent attendance. I begged faculty to make it a requirement, or at least a source of extra credit, to get students to come to the auditorium at 7 p.m. I anxiously watched foot traffic from outside the auditorium’s door as the appointed time approached. I stood in the rear of the auditorium once the event was underway and counted heads. I did the math. The speaker was being paid, perhaps, $5000. Maybe there were 50 people in the audience. That meant each audience member’s attendance was costing my small college $100. And an audience of 50 or 75 at our small college in our small town was a successful night. A few times, we had a full auditorium (around 200), usually because my faculty colleagues had urged their students to attend. The speakers were mostly good, generally agreeable to staying for a Q and A, most often good sports about what I know was not a particularly exciting stop on their speaking tour.
We never really worried about protests, counter-protests or media coverage. In fact, we welcomed a bit of controversy, knowing it would increase our audience size and, ideally, lead to the kind of learning we loved: students exposed to viewpoints different from their own! A spot on the local nightly news or coverage in the next day’s paper was evidence that we were doing some good educating.
All of this is why I watch in sympathetic bemusement as campus administrators across the country try to figure out how to host speakers whose supporters and detractors show up ready for battle, administrators who dread media coverage of yet another campus conflagration, who struggle to find the funds to pay for the security needed to maintain safety and order. And to all of you, I offer a simple suggestion: don’t. There is an alternative, about which I am completely serious.
Surely your campuses are equipped with state-of-the-art video technology that allows anyone anywhere in the world to appear on a large screen, including one in an auditorium that can be simultaneously viewed by hundreds at a time. A remote speaker requires no security detail, and there is no way a member of the audience can disrupt the actual speaker, save pulling a plug or throwing a breaker somewhere in the room or building, something that can easily be prevented with a little forethought and a padlock.
Here are some other benefits: a speaker appearing remotely will probably cost less. Or at least they should. They can speak to your students from the comfort of their living rooms. They incur no travel or accommodation costs. The technical rider their agent sends to the hosting group or office can be a mere one page long. No need to order food for the green room while your speaker waits with his or her assistant(s) to be called to the stage. Not a single glass of water needs to placed on a podium. No concerns about getting the person safely out of the building and back to the airport.
Students can still have the full educational experience they want. They can hear the message that some of them insist is their right to hear. They might still yell at the screen and even throw things at others with whom they disagree, but without the speaker--the main attraction--physically there to react, it seems less likely. The speaker can choose to interact with them, depending on the method of communication they choose (which will make up most of the content of that one-page technical rider), but at a remove from the potential disruption and threat.
Perhaps you think I’m joking. I am not. While day-long legislative hearings are being held to figure out how to host speakers of diverse political viewpoints, while administrators are sitting through endless meetings trying to strategize a response to an imminent high-profile event, while budgets are being pillaged, the speakers invited to your campus are dropping in, collecting large checks and moving on to wreak havoc, ill-intentioned or not, at the next campus. I am suggesting a serious, safe, cost-effective alternative to all of that.
Perhaps you think this somehow cheapens the experience of hearing a person’s message. I get that. I like seeing my heroes in person as much as anyone, and acknowledge something is lost when an event is not “live.” But we are facing crises on many fronts: financial, safety, public relations. Maybe you think that students will not show up to watch someone speak to them remotely. If that’s the case, ask the students inviting the speaker to explain why hearing the message in person is the only acceptable method, and then perhaps suggest this to students: we are living in a time when much of our entertainment, social activity and even our education is delivered through screens. For example, there are students living in residence halls who choose to take their own institution’s online courses and watch a faculty member deliver a lecture remotely rather than trek across campus to see that professor live. Why, then, is it critical that they see, in the flesh, this person sharing what is probably a speech identical to one she or he gave last week at another campus?
Suggest to students and others demanding to bring a provocateur, propagandist or instigator to campus in person that if it is truly the message that matters, if being able to hear diverse views is what’s really important, then a remotely-viewed speaker is hardly a poor alternative. In fact, it may be a better alternative because it allows many more people to hear the message through streaming video or later on, if recorded.
In 2005, the College Republicans on the campus where I worked (not the aforementioned small Midwestern college but a large public university) invited Ann Coulter to speak. I was assigned the uncomfortable task of waiting backstage with her where we made awkward small talk. I did not (I think) say anything offensive. I was there mostly, I suppose, to bear official institutional witness to what was predicted to be a confrontational speech to a large auditorium of students and local residents. Just before stepping from backstage toward the podium, Coulter looked back at me and her nearby assistant/bodyguard, smiled conspiratorially, and said, “This won’t take long.” She began her speech, but after about ten minutes, loud music started playing from the speakers, making it impossible to hear her. Someone had, it turned out, hijacked the sound system and patched in another audio source. Coulter’s next few sentences were drowned out by the dulcet tones of an obscene song from the TV cartoon South Park. After ten minutes, the source of the music was found and shut off. By then, Coulter’s fans and haters were both screaming at one another and, at least the latter group, at her. As we waited in the wings for the sound technician to give her the go-ahead to return to the podium, she told me that she was not going to give the rest of her speech and would go directly to questions. Actually, what she said to the audience was, “I love to engage in repartee with people who are a lot stupider than I am” (I tried not to take that personally, having just engaged in repartee with her during the disruption). She continued, “We’re having a question and answer right now with the little crybabies.” She answered questions for about 15 minutes, responding more rudely than any public speaker I had ever heard, then abruptly said, “we’re done” and walked off the stage. She looked at me and smiled again. “It was so nice to meet you,” she said. I stood there, stunned, speechless. Her assistant/bodyguard hustled her out the back door to a waiting vehicle and she drove off into the night, $16,000 richer.
Not all conservative speakers are as loathsome as Ann Coulter, and some left-leaning speakers are just as happy to pocket a large check for a little work. My point in sharing this story, aside from the questionable therapeutic value of reliving a traumatic event, is to offer my credentials as someone who has been on the front lines of these kinds of events for a long time and has arrived at a carefully-considered conclusion: this is absurd. Speakers are holding campuses hostage and students and student organizations are their accomplices--sometimes unwitting accomplices at that. We--taxpayers and students at public institutions, students and sometimes donors at private institutions--are paying them thousands of dollars to torment us because we are so desperately afraid of being seen as limiting the free exchange of ideas.
We need do no such thing. Bring on the ideas! Left, right, provocative, intellectual, comedic, brilliant ideas, really, really stupid ideas--bring them all to campus via that wonderful invention that controls much of our lives--the internet. Host them on the biggest screen you’ve got. Stream them across campus and across the globe. Hold a question and answer period via Skype. The students who are seriously interested in the ideas will show up. The students and others who come for the spectacle, who hope to get some video footage of abhorrent behavior to post online--they’ll probably find something else to do. The students who feel that the “hosting” of a speaker makes them feel unsafe can stay in their rooms and watch online, or not watch at all, and brainstorm who they want to want to invite next. Campus safety officers can enjoy a more typical night of noise violations, parking tickets and fire alarms set off by burned ramen noodles.
Still worried that students will complain? Figure out how much money your campus will save by moving your speakers onto a screen and offer to return the savings to students in the form of a bookstore credit, or a few free meals. Or better yet, given the high fees students pay to support these and other activities, don’t take their money in the first place.
Still think this is a ridiculous idea? Please just consider this: on almost every campus, we are trying to find ways to use technology to save money and improve services. Why don’t we try using technology to preserve a value close to our hearts--the free, or at least cost-effective, exchange of ideas?
Lee Burdette Williams is a writer and educator in Burlington, VT. She can be reached via leeburdettewilliams.net.