SU to address low student interest with proposed Trending Topics restructure

| Senior News Editor

Student Union Vice President of Programming Charlotte Pohl and Speaker of the Treasury Alexa Jochims presented two proposals to restructure the process for selecting and nominating Trending Topics speakers to Senate and Treasury during a joint session, Jan. 28.

Photo by Curran Neenan

The changes aim to mitigate the issue of low student participation that currently plagues the series, and the two reps asked the legislative body for feedback before deciding on next steps.

Attendance at many of the Trending Topics events has been inconsistent in the past—546 undergraduates attended Justin Baldoni’s November 2018 speaker event, while 25 undergraduate students attended the September 2019 Maggie Haberman speaker event.

“In the past couple of years, the turnout at a pretty decent number of these events has been very, very low and the speakers are very, very expensive, so we didn’t think it’s a sustainable model or a responsible way to spend the Student Activities fee,” Pohl said.

Under the current structure, the VP of Programming and Campus Life collaborate to generate a list of speakers within the $10,000-$100,000 price range. Student groups then nominate speakers to Treasury, which proposes an official slate and wishlist of speakers.

The first proposal would open up the nomination process to the entire student body, allowing both individuals and organizations to nominate speakers. After speakers are vetted based on price, availability and alignment with Washington University values, the Social Programming Board (SPB) will distribute a survey to the student body using a weighting system similar to the WILD and Comedy Show to generate final results of at least four speakers.

After the final lineup is confirmed, SPB will collaborate with student groups, the speaker’s nominators and any interested students to plan programming and outreach strategies. Pohl and Jochims suggested that with more students involved in the entire process of nominating and selecting speakers, more students would be likely to attend and participate in supporting programming.

The second proposal would incorporate many of the same elements, with the addition of a 12-person committee, composed of four senators, four treasury representatives and four “at-large” seats that would give priority to students who are not a part of the legislative body. The committee would help select speakers before the speaker survey is distributed to the student body and use their discretion to adhere to or deviate from the survey results in selecting the final slate, explaining their final decisions in a report to be released to the student body.

Several legislators favored the first proposal; sophomore Senator Anne He expressed hesitation towards a committee having the ability to bypass the results.

“Students and student groups often see SU as an extra level of bureaucracy that they have to go through to get anything done,” He said. “Ultimately, I trust the students to be able to take control over their experience at Wash. U. and I think that they can build a diverse, engaging and highly attended group of speakers.”

Jochims said that with the committee feature, it would be easier to ensure that the slate ended up being diverse in both race and topics, but He also expressed skepticism over the tendency of a committee to maintain diversity.

“A group of SU officers isn’t really enough to determine what counts as identities that should be included and shouldn’t be included, especially if the reasoning is sent out to the public,” He said. “There’s a fine line between diversifying and tokenizing, and I don’t necessarily see SU officers as being the determinants of what that is.”

Sophomore Treasury Representative Fadel Alkilani also spoke against the committees, but on the premise that allowing non-SU officers to be on the committee might incentivize students to join only to advocate for certain speakers.

“I think there should be a survey so we can assess the popularity of certain speakers, but I don’t think that the primary choosing mechanism should be the survey in any way, shape or form,” Alkilani said.

Alkilani also cautioned against relying solely on a survey to select speakers.

“[Jochims and Pohl] keep saying [they will] have equity in the survey, but I haven’t really heard a process for doing that.” Alkilani said. “We already have a process in place that I think approaches and at least attempts to do that in a very accountable process.”

Sophomore Senator Gaby Smith gave additional pause to the idea of a committee, specifically the report.

“Writing this report will require pitting people, issues, identities against each other,” Smith said.

Pohl, Jochims, SPB Finance Director Shelly Gupta and VP of Finance Ariel Ashie will meet this week to discuss how to move forward given the legislative body’s feedback. They hope to start student body outreach and progress with a new structure within the next two weeks.

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