Convocations Program

History

The convocations program at Carleton College has a rich history, dating back several decades.

In the early days of the college, students were required to attend weekday chapel services. Starting in 1942, weekly all-college assemblies (not chapel services) were held Friday mornings at 11 a.m. and all students were required to attend. These assemblies were referred to as convocations in the 1946 catalog.

During the spring of 1968 the Carletonian reported on a student revolt against required convocation attendance with threatened boycotts and editorials highlighting the disinterest of students attending regular convocations. Required attendance at convocations was discontinued with the start of the 1968-69 academic year. For the next ten years, convocations were held sporadically and attendance was optional.

The fall of 1978 saw the return of weekly Friday morning convocations “designed to draw the campus together once during the week,” without required attendance. These have continued to the present day.

Purpose

The weekly convocation series is a shared campus experience that brings students, faculty, and staff together for one hour for a lecture or presentation from specialists in a variety of disciplines. The goal of the convocation series is to stimulate thought and conversation on a wide range of important topics. Convocations can enhance the academic experience of students — educate, enlighten, inspire, promote understanding of diversity, and develop global thinkers. While a convocation may last an hour, its impact can last forever.

Calendar

There are 8 convocations in each 10-week term, for a total of 24 convocations scheduled each academic year. Included among these are 7 annual designated convocations

Opening Convocation

Opening Convocation is an annual all-college assembly held in September on the first day of classes, celebrating the beginning of the academic year and recognizing academic achievement. The ceremony includes an address by a distinguished individual, oftentimes an alum or prominent Minnesotan. In October, the director of college events meets with the associate vice president for external relations and the dean of students to identify a list of three possible speakers who would be of interest to the student body. That list is presented to the president, who issues the speaking invitation.

Honors Convocation

Honors Convocation is an annual all-college assembly held in May, traditionally on the last Friday of spring term, drawing the campus community together to celebrate the awards and academic accomplishments of our students. The ceremony includes an address by a recent graduate who had received a major external academic fellowship and who is engaged now in activity of interest to students. In November, the director of college events will meet with the director of fellowships and the director of alumni relations to develop a list of candidates. The speaker should be someone who is close enough in age to engage current students and to whom current students can relate; who can link a fellowship award to other opportunities they’ve had and their life-after-Carleton trajectories; who will inspire interest in applying for external fellowships; and who is not an academic. The list of candidates is vetted with the dean of students and then sent on to the president and dean of the college for final selection. In December, the president and the dean of the college co-sign and issue the speaking invitation.

Argument and Inquiry Convocation

Since the fall of 2011, the first of the weekly convocations has been designated as the Annual Argument and Inquiry Convocation. When the A&I seminar program was instituted as part of the college’s new graduation requirements, it specified that there would be a convocation address each year by someone who would offer all first-year students a common intellectual experience to get them thinking about what a liberal arts education is.

The speaker each year is a senior faculty member, selected by the Dean of the College with input from faculty teaching A&I courses. The convocation address is designed to put the meaning, purpose, and scope of a liberal arts education front and center, which will ensure that it will be valuable to all students, regardless of the particular A&I course they are taking.

Diversity Convocations

The Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL) selects and sponsors four convocations each year for Hispanic Heritage Month (September), Native American Heritage Month (October), African American Heritage Month (February), and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May).

Convocations Committee

Speakers for the remaining 17 convocations are selected by a Convocations Committee. Established several years ago by the College Council, the function of the committee is described as follows: "The committee reviews convocation suggestions from students, faculty, and staff and selects a list of potential convocation presenters who come from a variety of backgrounds, reflect diverse views, and would have broad campus interest."

The committee consists of two faculty members appointed by the Faculty Affairs Committee (staggered 2-year terms) and two students appointed by the Carleton Student Association (1-year terms). The committee is chaired by the director of the Office of Intercultural and International Life. The associate vice president for external relations and the director of college events serve as ex officio members.  The current members of the committee are listed here.

Convocation Speaker Selection Process

Three times a year an email is sent to all students, faculty, and staff to solicit suggestions for convocation speakers, pointing to an online suggestion form. About 150 suggestions are collected each year. These suggestions are reviewed periodically throughout the year by the Convocations Committee for the purpose of determining a list of possible convocation presenters for the next academic year.

In doing so, the committee keeps in mind how the convocation program adds to our collective education at Carleton College: extension of the educational mission of the college; learning outside of the classroom; exposure to new ideas; opportunity for the college community to consider broad issues together. The committee also takes into consideration that convocations should stimulate thinking and promote discussion; they should have broad interest for the audience; the slate of convocations for the year should cover a wide range of disciplines; and diverse perspectives should be included.

The Convocations Committee develops a reduced list of potential speakers organized under various category headings, and ranks them as to preference. The director of college events researches these potential speakers to determine their availability and cost and investigates the speakers’ past engagements to get feedback on the quality of the speaker, effectiveness of the presentation, and response of the audience.

Using the committee’s ranked list of potential speakers, the director of college events is responsible for scheduling and arrangements for the convocations.

Convocations Budget

While it would be exciting to have a parade of celebrities coming through every week, the simple fact is that it can’t be afforded. Nationally prominent speakers usually get an average of $30,000 for a one-hour lecture, and the entire convocations budget for the year is only $68,000.

Alumni or others connected to Carleton typically come for very small fees, or nothing at all. Other speakers have a standard fee that fits into a fairly common range. Speakers who have recently published a bestseller or are in high demand will usually have an agent, and will charge whatever the market will bear. Honoraria or fees paid to convocation speakers have ranged from $500 to $8,000.

Occasionally the convocations program will partner with an academic department that can share some of the cost. Also, there are some endowed lectureship funds that allow us to bring to campus individuals we might not otherwise be able to, providing the speakers fit the criteria of the designated funds.

But it is important to realize that we don’t need to have celebrity speakers in order to have interesting, informative, and challenging convocation presentations. There are many Carleton alumni, parents of Carleton students, and colleagues of Carleton faculty who are doing fascinating and significant things, whose stories and messages are important for us to hear and to consider. Very often, these are our best convocations, and they don’t come with a high price tag.

Attendance

Around 400 to 500 people attend the convocations each week, which has been fairly constant over the years. Numbers increase when there is a renowned speaker or a controversial topic. The audience is made up mostly of students, with some faculty, staff, and a few local citizens. There is a core group of people who attend the convocations regularly, with others attending occasionally. About 22 percent of the student body and 7 percent of faculty and staff attend the weekly convocations.

Impact on Campus Life

As mentioned above, the goal of the weekly convocation series is to stimulate thought and conversation on a wide range of subjects. We hope that the convocation presentations spur conversations in the dining halls, in the dorm lounges, and even in the classrooms. But convocations should not simply replicate what is being done in the classroom. Instead, students should leave a convocation feeling that they had been exposed to a new idea or challenged to look at an idea from a different perspective.

The shelf life of a convocation presentation — the long-lasting impact on academic discourse — is much greater if it is linked in some way to the curriculum. We seek opportunities to engage speakers with students beyond the formal convocation program. For instance, a lunch discussion with the speaker follows each convocation, and any students, faculty, or staff who wish to attend may sign up for a limited number of spaces. Sometimes a speaker is invited to speak in a class, conduct a workshop, screen a film, or participate in a discussion group.

Video recordings of convocations are posted online for viewing at any time.

Community Connection

The weekly convocations are advertised locally and are open to the general public. Several retired members of the Northfield community make it a regular habit to attend each week. In addition, teachers in the Northfield Public Schools occasionally bus groups of middle or high school students to a relevant convocation. These may be students who are reading a book authored by the speaker or working on a school project that relates to the speaker’s work.

When possible, we arrange for the public school students to stay for a pizza lunch and conversation with Carleton student leaders, or in some cases a special group discussion with the speaker may be arranged.

Diversity in the Convocations Program

In 2017, the president charged the Community, Equity, and Diversity Initiative (CEDI) with considering how the convocations program might be leveraged to ensure a diversity of viewpoints as well as how it could engage the campus community in those ideas. In other words, to ensure that the program convenes us into a community that dialogues. Part of the work of a task force created by CEDI is a summary of diversity in convocations.

Controversial Convocations

In a review of the convocation program’s goal of including diverse perspectives, it has been noted that there is a general lack of politically conservative viewpoints. Other colleges and universities have attracted media attention when the presence of conservative speakers has resulted in student protests. An article in the September 15, 2015 issue of the Washington Post reported on comments made by President Barack Obama at an education town hall in Des Moines, Iowa. He waded into the discussion over political dialogue on college campuses, arguing that students should not be "coddled" from opposing political viewpoints.

"I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either — that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say."

Ideas need not be popular, palatable or even easy to digest to merit discussion. College is a place where ideas of all kinds should be openly explored.