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Tomorrow, we will have the opportunity to purchase a ticket to hear Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speak on campus next month, possibly on his role in co-writing a book or maybe his July arrest on marijuana charges. All this thanks to the good folks of Connaissance, the self described "speaker people." Aside from sharing a slogan with a disreputable South Jersey car audio establishment, the folks at Connaissance are responsible for bringing distinguished speakers to campus in order to enlighten the University community and foster intellectual discourse. However, as of late, it has been difficult to understand exactly what they expect us to gain from their speakers. Benjamin Netanyahu's visit a year ago, aside from generating a healthy black market for tickets, showed Connaissance at its best. His visit served as a vehicle for a renewed discussion on Arab-Israeli relations and led to substantive discussion in the student body. For this reason, I shudder to think what kind of discourse they seek to foster through such recent speakers like Billy Joel, Ellen DeGeneres, Danny Glover and Dick Vitale, not to mention Abdul-Jabbar. Like the DeGeneres event, the Abdul-Jabbar speech should prove to be a disaster. Although I acknowledge the place of bringing entertainers like Conan O'Brien and Bill Maher to campus, I do not expect to gain greater understanding from these events. Connaissance's recent attempts at mixing entertainers with serious issues, such as DeGeneres with homosexuality and Abdul-Jabbar with black courage, are misguided. Connaissance must decide what kind of "speaker people" they want to be and how that will affect the university community. In their decision, perhaps they should consider whom a Tier II university in Texas brought to their campus last year: A panel discussion moderated by U.S. News Editor David Gergen with columnists Bill Moyers and George Will, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, presidential advisor Mary Matalin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Titanic wreckage finder Robert Ballard, former British Prime Minister John Major, former defense secretary and current vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney and former President George Bush. Impressed? Me too. That list would be a good decade for Connaissance, yet they brought all these people to Texas of all places. Maybe even more impressive is the fact that all this was done without cost to the university. The program that makes this possible is the Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Established in 1982 to bring a greater number of extraordinary speakers to the university and foster a heightened intellectual environment, the lecture series has brought more than 121 high-profile leaders in fields such as government, business, the sciences, literature, the arts and education to SMU. Perhaps even more appealing to the folks at Connaissance, at SMU instead of having to ask the administration for money, organizers of the Tate Lectures actually raise money for financial aid and other student programs. In my one year there, I saw how the Tate Lecture Series solved for SMU the problem that we at Penn face in wanting to bring more and better speakers to campus without the high cost of honoraria. SMU's answer was simple -- it extended the lecture series to the entire Dallas community, from area businesses to disadvantaged high school students. Under the plan, an interested firm would sponsor a lecture, for which it would receive a large block of seats. Additionally, tickets are sold to the public on a subscription basis, and this revenue is channeled into financial aid, student programs and library acquisitions. The remaining half of the tickets are designated for students and distributed on a lottery basis. Since only half of the seats in the lecture hall are reserved for students, additional afternoon question-and-answer sessions are held for university students and area high schoolers. This year, the lecture series will generate a million dollars for financial aid, a quarter of a million for student activities and a half a million for a first-year student retreat. Not bad for a Tier II school in Texas, and a clear model for Connaissance to bring to Penn. Perhaps, sometimes you have to look down in the rankings if you're looking for a way to move up.

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