Guest editorial

Gene Biringer

As chair of this year’s Committee on Public Occasions I commend the editors of The Lawrentian for their April 8 editorial regarding convocation attendance. It is indeed disheartening to see so many empty seats in the chapel for university convocations, especially when the quality of the speakers is high and their addresses are timely and important.

I wish to comment on a few points raised in the editorial and offer a glimpse into the workings of the committee, in the hope that greater understanding of how convocation speakers are selected might foster greater interest and participation by members of the Lawrence community.

The Committee on Public Occasions consists of five faculty members, two students and two members of the university staff. As mentioned in the editorial, every fall the CPO solicits nominations by email from all students, faculty, and staff for the following year’s convocation speakers.

In recent years there have been five convocations annually: the Matriculation Convocation by the President, the Faculty Convocation by a member of the Lawrence faculty, and three convocations by speakers from outside Lawrence. Because the Matriculation Convocation requires no nomination and the Faculty Convocation speaker is nominated by his or her faculty peers, the fall solicitation seeks nominations for the convocations by outside speakers.

This year the CPO received 50 nominations — 22 from faculty, 16 from students, and 12 from staff members — of 42 accomplished individuals — artists, scientists, humanists, public servants and in some cases all of the above. It is a great joy and privilege for the committee to consider these nominations. The committee takes every nomination seriously and researches the nominees very carefully.

There are many factors to consider, including relevance and timeliness, variety and balance in the slate as a whole and practical concerns of cost and availability. After considering these factors the committee makes its recommendation to the president, who in consultation with the Provost and Dean of the Faculty makes the final decision.

I agree that greater participation in the nomination process by faculty, students and staff might stimulate greater interest in the Convocation Series and in turn increase attendance. I also agree that more can be done to publicize the process, and the CPO will take the recent editorial as an invitation to publish a notice in The Lawrentian next fall. And of course I too encourage students to apply to LUCC for a position on the committee; the work is interesting and important and has direct, tangible results.

Increasing the CPO’s visibility, however, will not by itself increase attendance at convocations. There are other factors to consider. Some Lawrentians might not attend because they’re not interested in — or don’t know — the speaker. Not all convocation speakers are in the headlines every day, but most are highly accomplished people who have something important to say. And, of course, if you don’t like the speakers, I hope you will nominate someone who interests you.

Thoughtful nominations can and do make a difference in the committee’s deliberations; please tell us, in your own words, why you think your nominee would make a compelling convocation speaker. We owe one of next year’s speakers to the thoughtful and persuasive nominations of four students who cared deeply about bringing him to Lawrence.

I agree that the daily schedule of classes might have a deleterious effect on convocation attendance. Until a few years ago the university’s daily schedule included a dedicated lunch period; many of us who remember it would like to have it back — not only on convocation days, but every day.

This concern touches on a much larger one: the general busyness and information overload that many of us feel. Slowing down a little will allow us to view convocations not as one more obligation but as an opportunity to pause, unplug, come together and be refreshed in the presence of a dynamic and provocative speaker.

Concerns among the faculty about declining attendance at convocations in recent years have led the CPO to consider this matter at some length, and the committee has explored a variety of ways of addressing it.

For example, we are looking at ways of promoting greater engagement with the work of the upcoming speaker in the weeks prior to a convocation by inviting participation in related classes, in informal reading groups and in one or more Community Reads along the lines of those conducted by GreenRoots this year and last. The campus community will be informed about one of these initiatives shortly.

The Convocation Series is a long-standing tradition at Lawrence, but if a majority of Lawrentians is not heeding the call it is important to understand why. As committees go, the CPO is very responsive to the opinions of its constituency — indeed, our work depends on them.

Thus I invite students, faculty and staff members to contact me with any concerns, questions or ideas you might have about improving the Convocation Series, its nomination process or events associated with it, and I can assure you that the CPO will take them very seriously.

Gene Biringer is Associate Professor of Music and the current chair of the Committee on Public Occasions.