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How two lecture series bring experts students want to hear

When most students learned that USF is bringing Bill Nye the Science Guy to campus Tuesday, they may not have considered who actually brought him.  

University Lecture Series (ULS), which is presenting Nye’s lecture, and Frontier Forum are the two programs often responsible for bringing the biggest named lecturers to USF. Though the speakers ULS and Frontier Forum bring usually fill the room, there are differences between the two in funding, organization and philosophy. 

Funded through the Center for Student Involvement (CSI), ULS’ vision is to bring speakers with a big name and a big message to campus, according to CSI coordinator Athena Bressack. 

“Their name’s going to get them in the door,” she said. “We hope that (students) leave inspired and learn something, and can take that with them and do something with it.”

The ULS program is entirely student-run. The lecture series also focuses on student input through cooperation with Student Government, surveys, brainstorming sessions and communication such as emails from students and student organizations. 

Bressack said ULS should reflect the interest of the student body, though it is not always possible to meet exact wishes.

“Oftentimes when we ask a blanket question like, ‘Who do you want to bring?’ students will say Beyonce. Well, Beyonce is out of our price range, doesn’t really do speaking engagements,” Bressack said. “We sort of try and take: OK, they’re recommending an entertainer, so let’s try and look at similar people with a similar mission if we can’t get exactly who students want.”

This year’s ULS budget, according to the current Activity and Service Fee budget, is $257,792. Bill Nye will cost $52,000 for a lecture, a Q&A and a book signing.

Typically, Bressack said if the series brings in a lesser-known speaker with a powerful message, the department would spend more on marketing since the cost of the speaker is comparatively less. Conversely, as with Bill Nye, it is not always necessary to market much at all.

When the Bill Nye announcement was posted on Facebook, Bressack said it was viewed more than 10,000 times. 

“A lot of times we pay for Facebook advertisements because … it’s a better use of our money than additional print advertisements, because a lot of students are on social media and we meet them where they are,” Bressack said. “We were considering doing that for Bill Nye, but we didn’t have to because it was so organically shared.”

Past speakers include prominent journalist Soledad O’Brien, who spoke in January on ethnicity, equality and race, and former congressman Ron Paul, who spoke on his libertarian political values around midterm elections. 

The selection process for ULS speakers involves input from the student body as well as direct representation from five student board members working in the ULS office, who ultimately decide on speakers. Bressack still sees some room for improvement in the process.

“I think a goal for us moving forward is to do a better job of surveying and assessing. That’s my goal as a coordinator now that we’re fully staffed,” she said. “I want to do a better job of finding out examples of who students want and figuring out how to ask those questions … I want to make sure we’re not just surveying, but surveying effectively.”

ULS is not the only lecture series bringing prominent speakers to campus. The Frontier Forum Lecture Series, which is sponsored by the USF Phi Beta Kappa Alumni Faculty and the Provost, comes from the College of Arts and Sciences. 

This lecture series seeks to bring speakers who have a relevant message within the liberal arts and sciences to USF students and the community. Together, both lecture series give the greater Tampa area a chance at a different image.

Michele Dye, communications and marketing director for the College of Arts and Sciences, said Frontier Forum was conceived as a way to boost not only the campus, but also the community.

“We’re just excited about the growth of the program,” she said. “Now that it’s been around for five years, people know about it and the community gets really excited about which speakers we’re bringing in.”

Speakers are chosen by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences with significant input from department chairs within the college as well as from a student advisory board. Event planner Christina Goldstein said there is a focus on bringing in speakers who are relevant and compelling.  

“We feel the College of Arts and Sciences is really the intellectual heart of the campus, so we try and find speakers that advance conversation, engage not only USF but our Tampa Bay community,” she said. 

“We like to look at things that are current topics that are going on or issues that are affecting our area. We take in a lot of different considerations when choosing a speaker … we also do a lot of cross-checking. We want to make sure these are top-notch speakers and we call other schools that have had them.”

Dye said Frontier Forum speakers typically draw a crowd of about 300 people. However, when Frontier Forum and ULS collaborated for the Jane Goodall event in the fall, which cost $60,000, it drew an audience of between 4,000 and 5,000 people to the USF Sun Dome.

Dye said the success of the Goodall event inspired Frontier Forum to bring in fewer speakers, but focus on bigger names. 

“The Dr. Goodall event was our first event at the Sun Dome,” Dye said. “We decided it would be really great to bring in a big, big name once a year and do that event at the Sun Dome.”

Prior to Goodall, one of Frontier Forum’s biggest events was a talk by physicist Michio Kaku at MOSI, which brought in about 1,200 people, but was standing-room only. 

Frontier Forum plans to have about three or four speakers next year, as opposed to its past average of six.

Other speakers have included the Lacks family, who appeared in September 2013 to complement the common reading experience novel for that year, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, writer of “This is Your Brain on Music,” spoke at USF in February.

Frontier Forum plans to have contractual information for speakers finalized over the summer, with the list of speakers released for the new academic year. According to Brent Smith, director of business services for the College of Arts and Sciences, the annual budget for Frontier Forum is $100,000. 

ULS also hopes to release the full fall lecture series in August, depending on when contracts are finalized with speakers.