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Duke ties bring prominent speakers

It may be difficult to see what Oprah Winfrey, Karl Rove and Amy Tan all have in common, but whether for a commencement speech or as part of a lecture series, all three of these public figures have spoken at Duke within the last five years.

From Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who spoke last January, to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who spoke Thursday night in Page Auditorium as part of his book tour for “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” Duke sees numerous speakers annually. But why these high-profile speakers are drawn to Durham over major cities may not be readily apparent.

“Our speakers come from all over the world. With a lot of these speakers, we don’t need to explain what Duke is. The fact that we’re not necessarily in a big city is not a big deal,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. In several instances, Schoenfeld has been directly involved in bringing speakers to Duke, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who will be speaking Oct. 13 as part of the Provost’s Lecture Series.

When selecting speakers, the main focus for the lecture organizers is to select a balanced lineup, said Susan Booth, program coordinator for the Provost’s Office.

“With the Provost’s Lecture Series, the Provost and his committee identify a theme that would apply broadly to both the students and staff and the community,” Booth said. “The committee then selects speakers from different disciplines who would all add to the theme, but from their own expertise—and usually, these people have connections to someone who’s here.”

Frequently, the speakers who come to Duke are friends of the University. Peter Feaver, Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of political science and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, worked at the White House for two years as the special advisor for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council staff. In selecting a balanced range of speakers for the TISS and the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy, Feaver has used his connections to bring speakers from Washington, D.C.

“I may not agree with a voice, but if it is an interesting voice, then students need to hear it. The people I have brought from D.C. haven’t all been from the [George W.] Bush administration,” Feaver said. “They’ve included folks with senior posts in [President Barack] Obama’s administration. But there have also been Karl Rove and Stephen Hadley—speakers with recognizable names from the Bush administration.”

The connection to the University may not always be entirely academic.

In 2008, Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, spoke about his book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America.” This particular invitation was the result of a call Friedman made to President Richard Brodhead to recommend a football coach. As a gesture of appreciation, Brodhead then asked Friedman to speak at Duke and meet with students and faculty at what was then the Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

In addition, television talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who delivered the 2009 commencement address, is neither a Duke alum nor a family member of one. But the son of Gayle King, Winfrey’s best friend, was a member of Duke’s Class of 2009 and Winfrey’s godson.

For a number of the speakers, presenting and giving lectures has become a source of income. David Sanger, a New York Times journalist, and Karl Rove, a former White House deputy chief of staff and senior advisor to Bush, for instance, are both associated with speakers bureaus and receive a fee for each presentation. Various lecture series have set aside money to pay for famous speakers, but Duke has frequently been able to negotiate discounts likely because of the University’s relationship with many of those invited, Feaver said.

“I suspect if you look at the list of distinguished speakers at Duke, only a handful came at their market value,” Feaver said. “The one place you’re not likely to get discounts is with entertainers like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. I would say that Duke doesn’t have as many of those as you’d find in schools in Los Angeles or New York.”

Specific details on speaker compensation were unavailable.

Despite the recession and its pinch on lecture budgets, the University has managed to maintain a notable lineup of high-profile speakers, in part because of outside donations. The Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy, for instance, received a significant gift from Roger Hertog, a businessman and philanthropist. Still, Feaver said funding has become an urgent priority, as there is no guarantee of funding next year.

Aside from the monetary incentives, Feaver said speakers are still interested in speaking at Duke for the University’s intellectual environment, especially if those invited are alumni or friends of the University.

“Put all that together, and you’re able to maintain a lively roster of speakers,” Feaver said.

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