Convocation: Better Process, Better Results

When I emailed a list of eight questions about the recent Convocation to the Office of the Provost, I understood I was functioning as the proverbial skunk at the picnic. Still, I was expecting more than two questions to be answered well in the response letter and the rest of them to be treated in glancing fashion or ignored altogether.

Here is the gist of what this curious MSU graduate student has learned.

Before 2007, Professor Allan Yarnell (then VP for Student Affairs and now an Executive Officer in the MSU President’s Office) conceived Convocation to be aimed at rooting students in their academic experience. To improve student retention (especially the number of freshmen continuing on as sophomores) and graduation rates was a key goal. The current mission of Convocation, according to the Provost’s Office, “is to establish a strong academic connection between freshmen and MSU by celebrating their MSU beginning with classmates, students, staff, faculty and the Bozeman community.”

The composition of the Convocation Committee “is fluid” and “varies from year-to-year.”  Currently, it has thirty-five members, one or two of whom are students (e.g. ASMSU President) and four of whom are affiliated with the Bozeman Public Library and Public Schools. They give top consideration and follow three guidelines in the selection of the Convocation Speaker: (1) a great book and a great speaker/author; (2) a great speaker who provides a keen insight into a great book; or (3) a great speaker “who falls into our lap.”  Dr. Condi Rice was deemed to fit under both (2) and (3).

Practically speaking, the Provost’s Office says, “the process for selecting Convocation speakers has been essentially the same since 2007: Speakers, books, authors, messages, lessons and broader impacts are discussed freely; decisions are arrived at through dialogue leading to consensus; and a mutual agreement is forged to move ahead with efforts to recruit the selected speaker. As in the past, the recruiting efforts have been led by Carmen McSpadden, Director of the MSU Leadership Institute, but have also involved other contacts. Indeed, it is typical that we leverage personal connections to Bozeman as we recruit speakers. This leverage often enables us to attract speakers at a small fraction of typical costs.”

Since I received no accounting for the costs of bringing Dr. Rice to campus in addition to her $25,000 honorarium (e.g. police escort and security detail) or the comparative costs incurred for other Convocation speakers, we have no way of knowing whether she was a bargain or not. But this much we do know: This is an opaque process with a clear bias toward high-profile, published writers/authors and/or celebrity-type established public speakers, whether political partisans or not.

There are ways to keep what is good about Convocation, while also establishing a much more open, answerable process for the selection of future speakers and follow-up learning.

First, the work of the Convocation Committee should be on public record, complete with required democratic votes in which a majority determines the selection and recruitment of future Convocation speakers.

Second, post the names and individual contact information for all current Convocation Committee members on the Provost’s section of the MSU website.

Third, beef up student representation (undergraduate and graduate) in the Convocation Committee.

Fourth, try organizing at least one Convocation around a central question or life-changing choice/decision confronting each of us, including but not focused so much on predictable platitudes for freshmen. One illustrative topic: Freedom: Is its value really only determined by what we do with it?

Fifth, require every Convocation Speaker to commit to be featured in at least one completely open, public question-and-answer forum/Bozeman Town Hall Meeting of at least 90 minutes in conjunction with his/her visit to our community.

Sixth, use social media to gather in-depth, critical feedback from freshmen in particular, who just attended their first Convocation. Ask their opinion on needed improvements and encourage continuous input from new students from the day they commit to attend MSU next Fall about a topic/life choice of great importance and relevance to them, and what sort(s) of Convocation speaker(s) and format(s) would best inform them.

Seventh, publish an interim report early each Fall semester capturing freshmen commentary on their first Convocation and summarizing findings useful to the framing of the next Convocation and identification of potential speakers and post it to the MSU website.