Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series headlined by notoriety, diversity in spring 2021

A collage of portraits of those invited to speak at Tisch College's distinguished speakers is pictured. Courtesy Jennifer McAndrew

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life announced the guests who will be speaking in its virtual Distinguished Speaker Series during the spring 2021 semester on Feb. 8. Headlining the list are Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Chief Medical Advisor to the President Anthony Fauci and political leader and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, among other influential civic leaders. 

Students and community members can now register to attend the Distinguished Speaker Series events online at the Tisch College website. 

The Distinguished Speaker Series at Tisch College has invited many prominent figures over the years, including former Senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the late Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis. 

Jennifer McAndrew, the director of communications, strategy and planning for Tisch College, has oversight of the selection process for the Distinguished Speaker Series. In her work, she helps decide who is invited to speak and helps initiate the process of contacting them. 

The selection process for the series is much more drawn out than many may think. 

“Sometimes the process [of inviting speakers] can be two years, or even longer … sometimes we get a really quick response, jump on it, and we schedule it,” McAndrew said. “[Sometimes someone agrees] and then it takes a year for us to schedule it because of their travel in pre-COVID times or just their schedule.” 

However, Tisch College has been successful in getting speakers to accept invites by adjusting to their schedules and making arrangements that work for both parties. 

“We give [speakers] different options. It doesn’t have to be nighttime, it can be more informal,” McAndrew said. “Adding the lunchtime format to our speaker series which we did two years ago as an option has also expanded the likelihood that we get more [accepted invitations].”

In addition to Pelosi, Fauci and Abrams, this year’s Distinguished Speaker Series includes Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, conservative political commentator and former Republican politician Michael Steele and Obama White House staffer and co-host of Pod Save America Dan Pfeiffer. 

McAndrew also described how Tisch College aims to have purpose in its speaker selections. Considering the role that this year’s speakers have had in the public sphere, they are certainly achieving this goal. 

“We really have intentionality around attracting a diverse range of speakers, and we mean that diversity in terms of racial diversity, gender diversity, socioeconomic diversity, life experience … we’re not just interested in political figures … we really want all aspects of civic life and public life represented,” McAndrew said. 

Aside from COVID-19, a major difference in this spring’s Distinguished Speaker Series is that Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College, will be retiring at the end of the spring 2021 semester after seven years in the position. Solomont (A’70, A’08P) had an illustrious career in public policy before assuming the role of dean in 2014.

“We’re really cognizant that this is Dean Solomont’s last semester as dean, he’s retiring … [we wanted to] raise the bar, go out with a bang,” McAndrew said. 

Jessica Byrnes (LA’12), special programs administrator at Tisch College, spoke further about the process of securing speakers, and explained that the contact between Tufts and the desired candidates for the Distinguished Speaker Series is often indirect. 

“If they’re an elected official, usually we go through their congressional office or a staff member … sometimes speakers are [represented] by agencies that we work with,” Byrnes said.

Speaking to the success and notability of the Distinguished Speaker Series, Tufts does often have previous attachments to candidates in consideration. Byrnes also described the influence that Tufts as an institution has on the decision-making process of whether speakers want to visit. 

“Sometimes we have a personal connection to them, or a board member does, or someone else at Tufts does, and we work with them to invite that person to campus,” Byrnes said. “Tufts has a lot of very impressive people with really wide networks, and I think that’s been a constant resource for us.” 

Like all other events this year, the 2021 Distinguished Speaker Series will be held virtually. James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and a professor of political science at Tufts, found that the transition from in-person to virtual events due to the pandemic was actually helpful to the process of securing speakers. 

“Zoom has made it possible to do a lot more [speaker events],” Glaser said. “It seems like the schedule [for guest speakers] is fuller, and that’s one of the few things that’s been better in this period in terms of campus life.” 

Glaser also reiterated the importance of the diverse sets of views and backgrounds in the Distinguished Speaker Series. This spring’s group will showcase views from various positions across the political spectrum and involved in different areas of public life. 

“Students learn from hearing from people that they might agree with and from people that they might disagree with,” Glaser said. “I think it’s an important component of this kind of program, to bring in diverse voices, and that doesn’t just mean ideologically different, it means in lots of different ways.”

Glaser praised Tisch College for its impact on enhancing civic life at Tufts and beyond. 

“It’s a blessing to have Tisch College. Tisch College is a magnet for people who want to participate in a university where this kind of agenda is being set,” Glaser said. “I’ve been going to lots of these events for my whole time at Tufts, and Tufts students routinely make me very proud.”