Committee Plans to Bring Big-Name Speakers to Pomona

A gift from an alumnus prompted the official creation of the Speaker Series Working Group last year. The Pomona College group, which was given a three-year donation by the Broe family to bring big-name speakers to campus, brought political strategist David Plouffe as its first speaker last spring.Made up of students, faculty, and staff, the committee was formed partly in response to the renowned speakers (such as Bill Clinton and Bono) that Claremont McKenna College brought to campus a few years ago.“There’s been a large demand from students, alumni, and people in general looking to the administration, saying, ‘Why are we not getting these big speakers too?’” said Kelly Schwartz PO ’10, a member of the committee and ASPC Vice President for Finance.The donation is being used as seed money to get the program started. About $50,000 per year was budgeted to spend on speakers for three years.“It’s a working group to look at what type of speakers program can we create for the community, how are we looking at this program to shape campus discussions, what is our purpose, [and] what are we providing for the community—a big name that can’t talk about something substantive, or someone that can contribute something to campus dialogue?” Schwartz said.The committee generates a list of speakers based on how they think the student body would react and how much the speakers cost. The potential candidates are then ranked according to availability and when they would come to campus. The list of possible speakers for next semester includes Malcolm Gladwell, Colin Powell, Van Jones, Al Gore, Tom Friedman, Elie Wiesel, Buzz Aldrin, Barbara Ehrenreich and Sandra Day O’Conner. The committee hopes to make a decision by the end of this semester and bring the speaker between the end of February and beginning of April.“There are hundreds and hundreds of phenomenal speakers, but they’re not of the caliber that you would want to put into a 2400-seat venue,” said Neil Gerard, Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Smith Campus Center. “I’ve said to the committee that there’s a factor I call a parenthetical addition: when a name comes up, if you have to make that parenthetical addition, then that’s the question mark. There are certain people whose name recognition is such that everyone knows who they are, and that’s what we’re looking for.”The committee wants speakers who not only are well known but also have something valuable to say.“We don’t want to bring people for the sake of bringing them and contributing to the prestige and reputation of the college, or go after someone just because they’re a big pop culture icon,” Schwartz said. “We’re struggling to find a big-name speaker that will be meaningful to the community.”Gerard said the committee looks at the speaker’s presence as more than just the hour they spend in Big Bridges. In addition to speaking in the auditorium, the speaker is expected to engage with students on a more personal level.“David Plouffe spoke at classes, he was on campus, he went to a reception [and] he had dinner with students,” Gerard said. “It’s a broad base of those kinds of involvement that really enhance, [and] in some ways are as important as, the big speech. He did a class presentation for a hybrid class with media studies students and political science students. They were sitting with a man who had a large hand in shaping the politics of America. You don’t get that opportunity too often.”The committee views last year’s visit by Plouffe as successful.“It was a good turnout,” Gerard said. “We had about 1500 people there. To me, that’s the student response. Students vote with their feet and I think they responded very favorably to him, to meeting him, to his presence on campus.”Schwartz said the group is a work in progress but hopes it will solidify its role on campus.“I think [by bringing] speakers on campus in general, you’re bringing voices and ideas and people who influence our learning and cultural experiences to engage the community,” Schwartz said.Gerard hopes the college will be successful in creating an endowment for major speakers in the long run. He is not looking to create a program like CMC’s Athenaeum but would like to build a program or theme around speakers preceding their visit.“I think it’s important [to bring speakers to campus] because there are some great thinkers out there and great ideas out there that I think we enhance education when we can do that,” Gerard said.

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