Speaker cancellations disrupt campus programming

| Staff Reporter

Three speakers who were funded through the Student Union Speaker Series cancelled their planned appearances this semester, leaving student groups scrambling to come up with alternate programming.

Neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel, actor Joe Pantoliano and astronomer Steven Squyres added to a list of speakers who have been scheduled to appear but were forced to cancel. The last time two or more speakers were forced to cancel was 2010, when Harry Belafonte and Richard Gephardt each backed out of their speaking engagements. More recently, the Washington University College Democrats appealed to Treasury for a visit from former vice president Al Gore in fall 2011, but his talk was never scheduled.

Barbara Rea, director of the Assembly Series, who collaborates with the SU Speaker Series, maintains that these cancellations are rare occurrences and that they could not have been avoided.

Typically, especially for entertainers and politicians, there is an unavoidable clause in the contract that gives speakers an out for professional opportunities.

“We don’t have any clout when it comes to [contracts],” Rea said. “We have to always remember that the speaking agents are salespeople and their clients are the speakers, not us. They are in the business of taking care of their speakers.”

According to Rea, American Program Bureau, Inc. (APB), the agency the University works with, will typically inform her if any invited speaker has a history of cancelling engagements. In addition, should a cancellation occur, the agent will usually attempt to find a replacement.

Such was the case when Pantoliano, whose visit was sponsored by Active Minds, backed out of his visit in order to shoot for a television program. According to senior and Active Minds President of Internal Affairs Dalton Guthrie, the group received an email on March 13 informing it of Pantoliano’s cancellation. Guthrie did not know that Pantoliano’s contract had an out clause.

“It definitely was pretty stressful at certain times,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t know that [cancellation] was even a possibility when we were appealing and first got the contract signed.”

The contract that Executive Director of Campus Life Mike Hayes signed with APB for Pantoliano’s visit explicitly states that the “speaker reserves the right to reschedule or cancel this event due to unforeseen professional commitments but will reschedule at a mutually agreeable date/time under the same terms provided herein.”

Because Pantoliano was scheduled to be the finale for Active Minds’ Mental Health Awareness Week, APB worked with the group and Rea to find another speaker. The agency recommended Jeffrey Tambor, an actor who has spoken previously about mental health. While initially hesitant about the “Arrested Development” star’s appearance, Guthrie was pleased with the performance.

Because Active Minds appealed to Treasury specifically for Pantoliano, Guthrie had to prepare another emergency appeal for the funding to bring Tambor to campus. The $12,500 that had been allocated for Pantoliano will return to Treasury’s appeals account, even though Active Minds had to subsequently request $15,000 to bring Tambor.

Each cancellation has seemingly come from circumstantial situations. For actors Kal Penn and Morgan Spurlock, a change in shooting schedule forced their withdrawal.

“Work trumps coming and speaking on a campus, and that’s as it should be if you think about it,” Rea said. “Really, we’re very lucky in that people want to come here and want to speak, but it comes with a risk. If the risk is acceptable, then that’s great.”

Kandel was unable to leave New York because of snowstorms both on the East Coast and in St. Louis. Belafonte suffered what Rea called “a mild heart attack” before his visit.

The reasons for Squyres’ cancellation was not made available, although Vice President of Finance and junior Nick Palermo said that members of EnCouncil had told him that Squyres would not be coming. Senior Gage Crawford, EnCouncil’s president, was unavailable for comment.

While taking into account the recent cancellations, Palermo indicated that communication between Rea, Treasury, and the presidents and treasurers of student groups could be improved. He also said that Treasury should begin placing greater emphasis on whether or not a speaker is prone to backing out when considering appeals.

“It’s not always clear how much of what we say actually gets communicated to her and is acted upon,” Palermo said. “If people are asking for speaker [when] it’s common knowledge that they back out on their contracts, that kind of thing can be voiced to Treasury and can be something we can take into consideration.”

“In my time with Treasury and watching Treasury make decisions, I don’t think there has ever been a discussion about the nature of the contract or whether or not this person can come on a date,” Palermo added. “I think most of it is related to the value the speaker brings to campus because I think that’s what Treasury typically allocates based off of. But maybe it’s time to look at other factors, like their contracts or their history [of cancellations] as a speaker.”