On Thursday morning, KLRU hosted an on-campus conversation between Texas Tribune showrunner Evan Smith and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, a potential 2016 presidential candidate and one of the only independents on Capitol Hill. Despite the prominence of the speakers and the accessibility of the event, a quick glance around the studio revealed disappointingly few students among the audience.
Later that same day, the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft, along with several other campus organizations, hosted an on-campus lecture featuring Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, widely regarded as one of Congress’ foremost experts on foreign policy. And, for the second time in eight hours, a quick glance around the auditorium exposed a crowd largely devoid of young people.
As frustrating as it might be to see low student turnout at events featuring some of America’s most influential leaders, there are plenty of valid reasons underlying such a poor attendance level. Given the amount of energy it takes to balance working hard enough to succeed and resting well enough to avoid burnout and illness, most students don’t have a whole lot of time to spend extemporaneously attending presentations, no matter how interesting or informative they might be. That means that a presentation on campus will probably never reach the same turnout as a home football game or a lecture hall on exam day, regardless of its subject matter or the speaker’s notability.
Still, the unlikelihood that students will turn out en masse to hear famous or dynamic or controversial public figures doesn’t absolve the University of its responsibility to facilitate access to its own events.
Somehow, UT has made it to 2015 without consistently posting livestreams of on-campus speakers. Doing so would accommodate anyone who can’t attend a presentation during its scheduled timeframe. The Internet is already a godsend for students seeking to fit TV shows into their hectic calendars; there’s no reason it couldn’t provide similar benefits to those interested in the thought-provoking events the University has to offer.
Event planners should also consider restructuring question-and-answer sessions to include online submissions, a tactic employed at presidential debates to improve audience engagement. At Ayotte’s lecture, moderator William Inboden was able to identify by name a large proportion of the questioners he selected. But while handing the mic to those well-connected enough to get recognized by the director of the Clements Center is a good way to maintain a high-quality discussion —one of the few audience members Inboden randomly called on launched into a tirade about a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam — it doesn’t exactly encourage participation among the general public. Allowing attendees and non-attendees alike to submit questions online can reconcile the trade-off between providing access to everyone and expecting coherence from everyone.
A more challenging problem for the University is how to balance its obligations to its students with its commitment to engaging the broader Austin community. Last year, UT’s Civil Rights Summit jolted thousands of students out of their daily routines by bringing to campus a star-studded array of visitors that included four U.S. presidents, four Hall of Fame athletes and dozens of activists, philanthropists and academics. But because the Summit reserved so many seats for Austinites and VIPs, Longhorns made up a tiny fraction of the event’s audience.
As a public university, UT is right to provide some perks to the taxpayers responsible for keeping it afloat. But shutting interested students out of high-profile presentations sends a terrible message to America’s future leaders and innovators. To its credit, the University did livestream most of the Summit’s speeches, and it set up a huge monitor in front of the Tower to send President Barack Obama’s address booming over the South Mall. Still, when the football stadium seats over 100,000 people, there’s no need to exclude anyone from major events, regardless of their relationship to the University.
If it wants what starts here to really change the world, UT should let its students engage with those currently changing the world.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. He writes about campus and education issues. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.