Convocation: Greater Accountability and Transparency Needed

Harry Houdini and David Copperfield were two of the greatest American magicians and illusionists of their times. They would have been shocked and awed at how Dr. Condoleeza Rice was able to come to MSU with great fanfare, deliver her Convocation address and escape Bozeman without ever having to publicly account for her part as a principal foreign policy architect of the costly, misdirected U.S.-led military invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Now it is understandable if most MSU freshmen didn’t know much about Dr. Rice — they were in kindergarten or first grade at the time. But shouldn’t the rest of us have been asking questions about how and why our nation’s most influential diplomat functioned as a leading salesperson for going to war in the heart of the Middle East under dubious circumstances? Yet, she managed to antiseptically come and go in our midst without having to answer for these actions.  Regardless of what one thinks about Dr. Rice as a public leader and policymaker, we need to learn from this staged encounter and make some changes.

Setting politics aside, much better results can often be had by improving decision-making processes to make them more transparent. So it is with MSU’s Freshman Convocation, drawing upon six years of practical experience.

Two weeks ago, at least 7,000 people made their way to the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on a gorgeous summer evening to listen as the accomplished and highly controversial Dr. Rice deliver her keynote remarks. Her audience included at least 1,700 freshmen expected to read only her carefully selected family memoir and attend, plus several thousand more people from the university and the public. Her sponsors accomplished the managed compartmentalization of Dr. Rice’s views and most consequential work decisions, despite their direct and profound effects on hundreds of millions of lives.

Aside from MSU football and basketball games, graduation ceremonies and special events, the summons to Convocation is de facto the largest annual gathering of a cross-section of the Bozeman community.

Without question, Convocation presents an unparalleled, poignant opportunity to take stock of where we are as individuals, our university, our community, our society and our world, and to spark an open exchange of information, ideas and opinions on ways to learn more and do better. But more importantly, it could be a springboard for sustained dialogue on at least one life-altering consideration throughout the ensuing year for all of us, in settings inside and outside the university.  It could more effectively set in motion a demonstration project of sorts on how to nurture academic freedom, weigh the consequences of our decisions, encourage debate and explore different perspectives (sometimes conflicting), disagree without being disagreeable, learn or re-learn the art of compromise, and remind ourselves of the importance of empathy and tolerance for attaining a shared sense of common purpose.

How then could we improve Convocation and help make it more transparent and accountable?  For starters, we need to ask questions of those who organized and sponsor the event. Below is a list of questions posed to the Office of the Provost. Their responses will be included in a follow-up to this article, to be published next week.

  • What was the original charge and mission statement for Convocation? How have they evolved in the past six years?  Should the scope and design of Convocation and follow-up activities be broadened, without sacrificing a special, tailored appeal and challenge to the incoming freshmen?
  • In an era when Facebook, Twitter and other social media are everywhere and the 24/7 news cycle is a fact of life, what extended efforts are being made in real time to solicit input from MSU students, faculty and One Book-One Bozeman community in general, and from incoming students, in particular, before persons are nominated and/or invited to speak at the next Convocation?
  • When a high-profile public figure like Dr. Rice is invited to give a public address in which she/he makes any comments about public affairs, shouldn’t there also be a public question-and-answer forum or community town hall meeting required at a minimum?
  • What formal processes, procedures and timelines were followed for the nomination and invitation of Dr. Rice to be the 2012 Convocation Speaker? Did the procedure differ from prior years’ speakers?
  • The Bozeman Chronicle reported that Dr. Rice was paid a speaker’s fee of at least $25,000 for her whirlwind visit and speech to the 2012 Convocation. How much in additional expenses were incurred for police escort, meals, airline tickets and the like for Dr. Rice from funds available to the Provost’s Office or from any other MSU accounts?
  • What fees and expenses and how much in total was paid for each of the Convocation speakers prior to Dr. Rice?  Did Dr. Rice or any of the other Convocation speakers choose to donate any of their fees to scholarships for MSU students in need or other charitable purposes?
  • How are co-sponsorships for the Convocation solicited and secured and by whom?  Are co-sponsors, for example, required to contribute financially and/or otherwise support the Convocation in demonstrable ways?
  • What processes and procedures do the Office of the Provost and the Convocation Committee, respectively, follow to critically evaluate and report publicly on each Convocation in its wake and to practice continuous process-improvement?

Dr. Rice counseled us that “education gives you the armor and the tools to take whatever circumstances you’re in and change them.”  Let’s act on that sage advice, thus enabling Convocation and its follow-up activities to more fully realize their potential and reach a higher plane of civic development.