Tisch Distinguished Speaker Series brings prominent public figures to Tufts

Tisch College Dean Alan D. Solomont introduces Reggie Love, former NFL player and special aide to Barack Obama, as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speakers Series on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Evan Sayles / Tufts Daily Archive

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service aims to serve as a “catalyst for active citizenship at Tufts.” In pursuit of that mission, Tisch College launched its Tisch Distinguished Speaker Series last year as a feature program to bring a variety of keynote speakers to interact with the Tufts community.

The Distinguished Speaker Series has brought public figures to campus to engage with faculty, students and staff about important issues of the day, according to Alan Solomont, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College. Previous speakers have included Kathleen Sebelius, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services; Matt Bai, a political journalist; and U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

This semester, the series has brought Reggie Love, former “body man” to Barack Obama, and Larry Summers, the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to campus. The series also held a Women in Politics seminar last Thursday, Nov. 12, in the Alumnae Lounge, which featured Congresswoman Katherine Clark, Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley and state legislator Keiko Orral.

The program is designed to appeal to a larger community, according to Solomont.

“Our hope is to find ways of reaching everyone,” he said.

Tisch College partners with other programs or departments to bring each speaker to campus in order to engage a wide range of students, according to Jessica Byrnes, the Special Projects Administrator of Tisch College. Love’s talk, for example, was organized in partnership with Tufts Athletics department to attract interest from student athletes.

“People don’t come in and give speeches,” Solomont said of the speakers. “They’re interviews. That way, we can focus on what we think students would be interested in … There’s a lot of audience participation, so I don’t think we miss what is on people’s minds.”

The ability of the program to bring various notable speakers to campus has been in large part due to Solomont’s network, Byrnes said. Before Solomont took his position at Tufts, he served a variety of positions, including as the U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra.

“I think we have the luxury of having a dean who’s very well connected and has some really great networks of really interesting speakers that we can ask to come on campus,” Byrnes said.

The effort to allow space for the audience’s interests is reflected in the way each speaker’s event is organized. According to Solomont, the program is broken up into three different sections in which attendees are able to address each speaker.

“[The first session provides] a more intimate conversation for a smaller group, a community forum, and then, if we can, we have a dinner and we invite faculty and some students and also some non-university supporters,” he said.

According to Jennifer McAndrew, the communications manager of Tisch College, a distinctive aspect of the series is its ability to bring students and the speaker together in a close setting.

“Part of the design of the program is that in addition to bringing the speaker here in a large-format speech and interaction…there’s also an opportunity before for a smaller group of students to meet with the speaker and really engage with them in a roundtable format and give them more opportunities to get their own questions answered,” McAndrew said.

According to Byrnes, participants for the small group discussions are chosen by the department and faculty members organizing the event together.

“We ask the chairs of that department and faculty to suggest who would be really interested in the smaller discussion — they can be undergraduates, graduates, [first-years], seniors — and we personally invite them,” Byrnes said. “It’s a really great opportunity for all students across all campuses to meet a speaker.”

According to Solomont, the budget for the program is relatively modest.

“We spend less…on the entire [Speaker Series] program than it costs for a year’s tuition at Tufts,” he said. “We get a lot of value out of a relatively modest investment.”

Solomont noted that the speakers volunteer to participate in the Distinguished Speaker Series, which diminishes the cost of the program and offers promotional opportunities for the speakers themselves.

Byrnes highlighted how the series benefits the Tisch College as well, by bringing a variety of perspectives in the context of public citizenship and service to Tufts’ campus.

“It is largely opportunistic just because they are prominent speakers and their schedules are pretty packed, but we’re also really intentional in terms of diversity,” she said.

Byrnes further explained the focus of diversity in selecting speakers.

“And I mean diversity in every sense, so Republicans and Democrats [too] … We’ll have a program on journalism, health sciences, [and we’ll] want to make sure we represent gender well, which we’re focusing on in our next event,” she said. “We want to make sure we have a really wide array of speakers that would appeal to all different types of groups.”

Despite being a relatively new program on campus, Byrnes and Solomont feel there have been a few difficulties in implementing the speaker series in order to engage the Tufts community.

“[One of the obstacles of planning the Distinguished Speaker Series is,] publicizing it in an environment where there’s a lot of things for students to do, and students are really busy finding the right dates,” Solomont said.

Although the challenge of attracting students on campus can be difficult, it’s one that Byrnes believes is a positive indication about the nature of Tufts’ campus.

“It’s challenging to try and gauge what students will find interesting and what they want to hear about,” she said. “But it’s a good challenge to have.”

Several speakers have already been confirmed for next year, according to Solomont. These speakers include David Gregory, former “Meet the Press” (1947 – present) moderator, David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist and former senior advisor and Beth Myers (A ’79), a former campaign manager for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid. Additionally, Solomont said Axelrod and Myers will be speaking together to keep in line with the upcoming presidential election.

“One of the things that is important in a democracy is a free exchange of ideas and discussion,” Solomont said. “And so we hope that by bringing people here through this series we’re going to help inform, create discussion and also showcase role models — people who’ve made decisions in their own lives to go into public service.”

Byrnes added to the benefits of the series.

“It’s interesting in a lot of ways, not just the subject matter they speak on,” Byrnes said. “It’s an interesting look just to hear how someone progressed in their field and got to where they are, especially for students.”