For a school of its size, Principia seems to attract an unusually high number of remarkable speakers. Just this past March, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke at the College. Other noteworthy names that have graced the Cox Auditorium stage over the past decade include then-President of Mexico Vicente Fox, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and then-Senator, now President, Barack Obama.
It is the little-known Speaker’s Committee that selects these speakers and organizes their visits to Principia’s campus. Chaired by Sue Thoma, events coordinator and executive assistant to College President Jonathan Palmer, the Committee is comprised of several faculty and student representatives.
According to presidential spouse Sue Palmer, “Typically, we try to have representation from the faculty, students, and Student Life staff.” Seniors Meredith Clark, Karina Olsen, Brian Simpson and Nate Waters are the student representatives on the current Speakers Committee.
Thoma is, by all accounts, the driving force behind the Committee. While students and other committee members suggest potential speakers, Thoma does the majority of the research, discovering whether the speakers are available, if they fit the speaker criteria and if the cost is within Principia’s budget. “Sue Thoma does a lot, and we get together to give opinions and generate ideas for speakers,” Olsen said. “If somebody suggests a speaker, she’ll suggest looking into it.”
Far from being a struggle to find top quality speakers who are willing to make the trek to Elsah, the speakers often find Principia. According to Thoma, “The blessing of this is that agencies find me.” Speakers connect themselves to agencies, who in turn contact schools like Principia in search of places to speak. Thoma brings these speakers to the Committee, and they are evaluated based on whether or not they would be of interest to students and whether they fit the speaker criteria in two major categories, the George A. Andrews Distinguished Speaker Series, and the Lucha Noerager Vogel Moral Courage Speaker Series.
Once speaker candidates are nominated, committee members are responsible for researching speakers and campus interest. Sue Palmer says, “Likely speaker candidates are discussed within Speakers Committee, and most often additional research is conducted by committee members with current community members and with various constituencies who represent the speaker, have hosted the speaker, speakers’ online presence to date, etc. before a short list of candidates is developed and put to a vote by the committee as to whom to recommend to Principia’s president.”
Frequently, the Moral Courage speaker is most difficult to select, according to Thoma, since many fit the courage aspect of the speaker position, but only a few fit the moral aspect of the topic. “Often, people will say that this person is very courageous, but however, we’re looking for someone with such a strong stance on what they consider right and wrong that they’d go out on a limb and change the way they lived to keep others out of harm’s way.” Last year’s Moral Courage speaker, “Escaping North Korea” author Mike Kim, was a prime example of such a speaker.
Once speakers are selected, the Committee makes the logistical arrangements for their travel and accommodation. Olsen said, “We usually fly them in, and they usually come with a team. So for example, Gorbachev has a team of nine people, so we’d have to accommodate them too.” The cost of actually bringing speakers to Principia is yet another consideration for the school. As Thoma says, in terms of attracting speakers, “It’s never hard. It’s a cost issue.”
The commitment and research of the Speakers Committee is evident in this year’s selection of speakers. This upcoming Tuesday, Principia will welcome two Apollo 13 astronauts – Commander James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise – as well as their flight director, Gene Kranz. Later in the academic year, Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, will speak. And by the end of the year Mikhail Gorbachev – former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – will make his long-awaited descent upon campus.