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How USC's Bush Lecture Missed The Point Completely

Francesca Bessey |
November 20, 2013 | 1:40 p.m. PST

Senior Opinion Editor

Yesterday, I was consistently late to all of my obligations because a person much more important than me was on my university campus.

"Distinguished" persons aren't all cut from the same cloth. (Beverley & Pack, Creative Commons)
"Distinguished" persons aren't all cut from the same cloth. (Beverley & Pack, Creative Commons)


George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States was invited to speak at the University of Southern California as part of the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series on November 19th. And he is a very important man.

SEE ALSO: George W. Bush Defends Decisions Regarding 9/11 And Economy At USC

I, on the other hand, am the sort of person who rides my bike to traffic court.

But anyway, I was late. I was late for a meeting in which I discussed, among other things, a speaker I helped to bring to USC last week. 

Her name is Sarah Fretwell. In 2010, Sarah traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to photograph and gather the testimony of hundreds of survivors of sexual violence in Congo’s war-torn eastern region.

She came home with a story no one had dared tell before her, and began sharing her art around the country as a means of challenging the U.S.-based businesses whose resource war has transformed the Congo into a living nightmare.

Sarah’s presentation was incredible. It is one of the events I will remember best at USC, especially because it marked the first time our organization was able to put together such a well-attended and powerful event with the limited resources we are apportioned as a student group.

And this is what I was on my way to talk about when I was redirected four times while crossing campus yesterday, as USC prepared itself for the arrival of President Bush.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the necessity of security when you bring a man onto a college campus who has probably received more death threats (serious or no) than days I have been alive.

That’s not what this is about.

This is about the fact that untold sums of money are spent on bringing “distinguished men and women” to campus each year as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series and yet, last week's tiny speaking engagement seemed so much more valuable to me.

Let’s put aside for a minute my general bafflement that we as a society are willing to pay politicians—who spend millions of dollars trying to make people listen to them—one or two hundred grand (Bush’s average speaker’s fee is $110,000) to spiel the same stuff they’ll say on television for free.

Much more pressing is the fact that, year after year, the Office of the President continues to bring speakers to campus that demonstrate an alarmingly narrow conception of “distinguished."

Examining the line-up of speakers from the past nine years, we have David McCullough, Eric Lander, Tom Friedman, Tom Brokaw, Jim Clifton, David Gergen, Robert Gates… and now George W. Bush. 

I’ll spare you the trouble of looking it up: every person who has been invited to speak as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series since 2004 has been a white, American male.


Except not really. Most of the people from the narrow pool of politicians, political analysts, media personas, economists and occasionally scientists considered “distinguished” enough for the lecture series are, statistically speaking, going to be white, American and male.

So maybe the problem isn’t who we’re choosing, but who we’re looking for in the first place. USC has brought some fine and famous folks to campus for the series in the past, but why must they all come from the same demographic and historical background? Why aren’t we tapping into the vast networks of human rights lawyers, activists, environmentalists, educators, peacekeepers—people whose job is to change the world, not just control it? Why aren’t we trying harder to expose students to a non-Western perspective, instead of presenting them with a more expensive version of what they’re used to?

Obviously, the responsibility does not fall entirely on USC. Bush, for example, was brought to campus on an anonymous donor’s dime.

But the responsibility surrendered by the school does not simply disappear; in this case, it is the donor who must decide which speaker would be of greatest value to the student body.

And at a school which has the highest enrollment of international students of any college in the country, inviting yet another white, American man to speak as part of the school's highest lecture series might not be the way to go.

Then again, maybe I’m going about it wrong by assuming the lecture series is supposed to promote diversity of perspective. Because not only are the same types of people invited to speak every year, but to attend the event as well.

Former USC President Steven Sample, who inaugurated the President's Distinguished Lecture in 1996, once stated that the purpose of the series was to bring "distinguished contemporary leaders to speak in a forum that is open to all members of our academic community." But the notion that these speaking engagements should be inclusive for all students seems to have been lost in the years since.

The bulk of USC students who received invitations to this year’s lecture are Trustee, Presidential and other scholarship recipients.

The biggest problem with this—aside from the assumption that certain students are more deserving of an invitation than others, in a general sense—is that most of these scholarships are exclusively merit-based, meaning they are disproportionately awarded to students who have less financial need, who are generally not the first in their families to go to college, who have succeeded in the traditional educational pipeline and have won themselves a scholarship with good grades, high test scores, a strong resume and a charismatic interview.

It’s not as if these students didn’t work hard, or don’t deserve to be where they’re at or to hear Bush speak. 

They’re just the students who are already typically invited to events like this, while students who are just as capable and have just as much or more to offer the world are assigned a lesser status just because their scholarship has the word “need-based” in front of it.

Granted, there’s no easy way to select 700 people from a population of over 50,000. But perhaps this means we need to rethink how much money, time and resources should be put into organizing an event that less than two percent of the student body can attend. 

To the “anonymous donor” who likely spent over 100 grand to bring George Bush to our school, the gesture is generous and, I’m sure, much appreciated by those who took advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But it took a student group 13 years to convince the university to spend half that amount on monitoring factories to ensure Trojan spirit wear wasn’t made in sweatshops. I’ve heard the theater school needs new chairs. And there are countless students at USC in dire need of financial aid, whose work-study jobs prevent them from going to those events that actually are open to the entire student body. 

Is there really nothing on which that money could have been better spent?

I remain in awe of the fact that I attend an institution of higher learning that could garner such a hefty donation (and I know that’s chump change compared to some of the gifts we get), from anyone, for anything.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t challenge that institution—and its anonymous benefactors—to do better.

Because the truth is “distinguished” individuals, current and future, aren’t all cut from the same cloth.

And a speaker with a high price tag might just mean a lot of people have made the same mistake before.


Reach Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here; follow her here.



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