Staff editorial: Trending Topics lineup still impressive despite budget cuts

It can be easy for a newspaper editorial board to be like the two old Muppets, Statler and Waldorf, at the theater, always criticizing others from the comfortable perch on the balcony. And while we do our fair share of criticism, we are more than happy to applaud others when they do a good job. And so, for the second year in a row, we are here to say that Student Union did an excellent job with choosing the Trending Topics speakers for the upcoming academic year.

Next year, Trending Topics is planning to bring five speakers to campus: Justin Baldoni, Michelle Alexander, Lisa Ling, Vandana Shiva and Issa Rae. If you are keeping score, that is five people of color, four of whom are women. This past year, six out of seven Trending Topics speakers were women, all of them were non-white with the exception of Gina McCarthy. After what feels like endless complaining about the dearth of female and minority representation in some academic departments, onstage at WILD and around campus in general, it is reassuring to see SU actively trying to bring diverse voices to campus.

And the diversity of this year’s Trending Topics will not be merely in terms of the identities of the speakers but also in their backgrounds and the subject matter of their talks. The names on the Trending Topics list run from pop culture figures to journalists to academics, with funds allocated to varying groups, ranging from the Association of Black Students to the Executive Advisor for Sustainability to the Chinese Students Association.

To briefly breakdown how disparate the speakers will be: Baldoni is an actor and activist for healthy masculinity, Alexander is one of the leading academic voices on mass incarceration, Ling is a prominent television journalist, Rae is an actor, writer and producer and Shiva is a prominent environmental activist.

One of the classic problems of organizing something like Trending Topics is name recognition. How can SU allocate funds for speakers that will draw the most people? But it is just as important to host good speakers as it is to host big names; and often, the big names can throw the budget out of whack.

This year, SU managed to very successfully navigate the $225,000 allocated for Trending Topics—a $25,000 cut from last year. Only two speakers—Rae and Baldoni—cost $50,000 or more, and even their respective fees barely cracked that barrier, with Rae commanding a $50,000 charge and Baldoni $53,000.

Overall, the Trending Topics speakers will cost $209,000, well under the reduced budget. As a result of this economizing, there will be two less speakers, yet it is still a commendable piece of budgeting, considering all five of the speakers have different backgrounds and will speak on a breadth of topics that are interesting and important to the Wash. U. community. And while none of the speakers this year are quite universally known, they are all leaders in their respective fields and have proven lecture-circuit experience.

Even with less funding, SU managed to secure speakers who will have a real impact for the people who go see them. Every single one of these speakers is a sure-fire hit. Each will add something new, something different and something that students will take away from Graham Chapel and think about for days to come. And that, of course, is the whole point of Trending Topics. The reason we always agitate for more diverse voices to come to campus is because those voices are so glaringly missing from the day-to-day education of most Wash. U. students. A program like Trending Topics is a wonderful opportunity to expand the academic horizons of students past the classroom and into the great wide world full of ideas that don’t always make it into the lecture hall.

We are happy to see that SU is taking full advantage of that opportunity with this years’ Trending Topics lineup. The past two years have proven that by working with student groups, Trending Topics can bring a breadth of solid, diverse and interesting speakers to campus; and if it continues along this trajectory, the series will become a vital institution at Wash. U.

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