In choosing lecturers, Wilson School relies on faculty, strategizes
If it’s 4:30 p.m. and you’re in Robertson Hall, chances are you’ll witness a steady stream of students and community members rolling in to hear one of the Wilson School’s guest lecturers.
Averaging two to three lecturers a week, these talks have become a staple of the Wilson School’s presence on campus. And recruiting this volume of high-profile lecturers is no small feat.
“The summer before each year I work with the dean [of the Wilson School] to come up with themes,” said Elisabeth Donahue, associate dean for public and external affairs in the Wilson School. This year, the themes are Development and the Environment, Emerging Markets and Economic Development, Military Policy, Technology Policy and Social Movements.
After themes are chosen, the Wilson School brainstorms ideas and begins reaching out to professors and faculty in the theme areas to help develop a list of potential candidates. This list gradually narrowed down.
“We’re looking for a policy element or someone who works in the policy world or has the policy angle,” Donahue said, adding that they look for someone with a high enough profile to attract broad interest from students.
The Wilson School then sends formal invitations to the speakers and asks them to stay for dinner discussion with a select group of individuals.
Donahue noted that a majority of speakers invited accept the invitation to come speak. Given that the Wilson School does not pay an honorarium, “We have a surprisingly high success rate,” Donahue said.
Usually, the Wilson School will have a professor or faculty member who personally knows the guest extend the invitation, even if they weren’t the one who originally had the idea to invite them.
“We’re more likely to get a successful response with that method,” Acting Vice Dean of the Wilson School, Brandice Canes-Wrone ’93, said. She explained that often, getting to reconnect with former classmates or colleagues is a big draw for them to come to the University.
Canes-Wrone herself extended an invitation to former classmate Rajiv Vinnakota ’93, co-founder of the SEED Foundation, to be a guest lecturer, at the suggestion of politics department chair Nolan McCarty. “It was just natural for me to be the contact,” Canes-Wrone said.
Vinnakota, whose foundation focuses on education policy, said he was excited to hear from his former classmate and enjoyed taking part in the lecture program.
“It’s my alma mater, so it’s always fun to come back,” Vinnakota said.
In addition to the lecture program, Vinnakota is also taking part in the Leadership and Governance program offered by the Wilson School, which invites four individuals to campus each year to come and spend time with students in more intimate capacities through class visits, one-on-one meetings and meals. The selection process for these speakers is made by a three-person board consisting of the vice dean of the Wilson School, the politics department chair and the associate dean for public and external affairs — currently Canes-Wrone, McCarty and Donahue, respectively.
While the Wilson School pays the necessary travel and lodging costs for lecturers invited solely for the 4:30 or lunchtime talks, those who stay for a longer period of time receive additional reimbursement.
Canes-Wrone emphasized that the Leadership and Governance guests are invited primarily to interact with students and that the afternoon lecture is a secondary aspect of the program.
The four individuals coming this year as part of that program are Vinnakota, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and New York Times reporter David Sanger. Canes-Wrone explained that the selection process is similar to the selection of other speakers, and they emphasize finding a diverse group of high-profile figures who represent a range of policy areas and political views that will best serve the students.
Donahue explained that the 4:30 lecturers also come from a diverse set of areas, which means they don’t always fill Dodds Auditorium for all events.
“If the topic is more discreet or the person has a lower profile or the topic isn’t in the news, we’ll schedule the event to be in Bowl 16 instead,” Donahue said. She explained that these events are still “terrific” and useful but happen to target a smaller audience.
Donahue explained that the most popular lectures are not always those scheduled within the themes set at the beginning of the year, but ones organized as part of their special election coverage lectures or their “Up to the Minute Events” lectures. Some of the recent lectures of this type included ones covering topics like the Middle East peace process, the killing of ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya or the death of Osama bin Laden.
Donahue said she has developed a knack for knowing which lectures will fill the 180-seat auditorium or will even attract a larger audience, which is directed to other rooms to watch a simulcast of the event.
Ranging from the public 4:30 lectures that are advertised campus-wide to the smaller lunchtime lecturers provided by the Wilson School to offer career advice to students concentrating in the program, the lectures have become an integral part of the Wilson School.
“We aim to make policy relevant so that it has an effect on the real world,” Donahue said, “and hopefully we’re achieving that goal.”
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