Are The Big Names Worth The Big Bucks?
22 February 2002 By Stentor Danielson
Big-name lecturers who have come to Colgate generally have proven to be worth their price tag, according to administrators and students involved in bringing these speakers to campus. While many students have complained that too much money is being paid for famous speakers who give mediocre lectures, those who bring these speakers seemed confident that the University's investments generally pay off.
"Students will never have another time in their lives when they can see so many people in such a short time," Associate Vice President for Communications Sally Baker said.
"What brings people to lectures is the name appeal," Director of Student Activities Marisela Rosas said. "Is a person who costs $100 and has something amazing to say going to bring that many [attendees]?"
Sophomore Matt Pysher, co-chair of the Colgate Activities Board (CAB) lecture committee, said that less well-known speakers don't draw the sizeable crowds that big names do. He said that "sometimes the prices are a little expensive," but the speakers generally earn it.
Interim President Jane Pinchin emphasized the importance of having a variety of types of speakers on a variety of levels of name recognition. "Some of those visitors will be free, some of those visitors will cost next to nothing and others will be relatively expensive," Pinchin said.
Assistant to the President Jim Leach said that he was unable to disclose the prices paid for Bill Bradley and other lecturers sponsored by the Office of the President, as speakers generally have an understanding with the University that their fees will not be reported.
Many of the prices that are reported for these lecturers are higher than what was actually paid, Leach said. He explained that the published asking price for many speakers is often reduced by catching speakers at opportune times in their schedules. For example, Leach said that Colgate paid "a fraction" of the $100,000 that the Syracuse Post-Standard reported for Mikhail Gorbachev's 1997 lecture.
Baker said that many speakers don't charge as much to non-profit organizations like universities because "they understand the nature of what we're doing."
Pysher added that the figures of $60,000 and $50,000 quoted in the Maroon-News Editorial two weeks ago for Al Sharpton and "Hurricane Carter" were around four times higher than what was actually paid.
Many alumni and friends of the University who come to speak, such as CBS News executive producer Jeff Fager '77 New York Times reporter Chris Hedges '79, often donate their services or charge only for travel expenses, Leach said. Commencement speakers are also not paid -- they receive only travel expenses and are given an honorary degree.
Though Leach did not recall ever turning down a speaker due to the price tag, Pysher and Budget Allocation Committee (BAC) Chair senior Amy O'Hara said that there were several instances in which their organizations turned down possible speakers because the price was too high.
"The money is finite; it does run out," O'Hara said. She said that one group had approached the BAC with a request that was turned down because the BAC Earlier this semester, felt that the speaker wouldn't draw a large enough audience to make it worth the high price being charged.
Pinchin said that big-name speakers are brought in both for the wisdom they can give to the campus and for "the excitement of meeting a figure who had changed the world."
O'Hara said that she "was just as disappointed" as many other students with the quality of Spike Lee's lecture earlier this semester. She said the BAC had learned from that lecture that "just because somebody is a really great director ... doesn't make them an excellent speaker."
It is often difficult to know beforehand if a lecturer will give a good talk, O'Hara said. "We have to go on the data that we had."
Big-name speakers are good public relations for Colgate, Baker said. This kind of publicity shows people that "this is a world-class institution ... these are the kinds of people you're likely to encounter."
Having a big-name speaker "puts us a little more on the map," O'Hara said.
Pinchin clarified this point. "I don't think it's about selling the institution," she said.
"Some of what establishes the costs of some of these speakers is the credentials they bring to the speech," Leach said. He said that, while the content of Gorbachev's speech could have been given by his interpreter, Pavel Palazchenko, the message was more powerful coming from the former Soviet leader.
Baker said she was pleased by the number of non-Colgate people who attend the big-name lectures. "I think that's a responsibility we have, to alert our community to the riches that are here."
"I think an institution is in the main the better for its experience with speakers on the world stage," Pinchin said.
O'Hara said that the BAC is often under pressure to bring a particular big name to campus. "If students are clamoring for a big name ... that's what we'll give them."
When Colgate brings in big-name speakers, "it's generally because it seemed to be part of Colgate's mission to expose students to a wealth of ideas and viewpoints," Leach said.
"In any one semester, we have and should have at Colgate more going on than goes on in many small cities. This should be a city on the hill," Pinchin said.
"I think that's one of the best things about Colgate, that you can see some of these high-profile people," Pysher said.
O'Hara said that the main concerns of the BAC when deciding whether to give a group funding for a speaker are the group's reputation, its organizational abilities, the contribution of the lecture to campus and possible scheduling conflicts.
Rosas said that the student organizations who have brought speakers think that the lectures have been worth their price, "and I think that shouldn't be taken lightly."
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