A younger discourse

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

On Monday night, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by journalist Bob Woodward at the Ohio Theater. The lecture, a part of the Town Hall of Cleveland series, was free for me, mostly thanks to the efforts of Case Western Professor Kathryn Lavelle, the moderator for the evening and the individual who acquired my tickets. However, I will not make it seem like I was special; a number of students from my class with Lavelle attended and apparently the Town Hall series is free to Case Western Reserve University students—a fact I was dismayed to have never heard before.

The reason students get in for free though, is because CWRU is the so-called “academic sponsor” of the Town Hall series. CWRU professors moderate question-and-answer sessions with the invited speakers; CWRU President Barbara Snyder delivers opening remarks in one of the few times she is accessible to students and the public. The speakers are invited guests—mostly famous scholars—brought to Cleveland to “educate and inform an audience of attentive and active citizenry to enrich the depth and quality of the public discourse essential to a free society.”

This year, the speaker series includes Woodward, who is famous for breaking the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post with the help of Carl Bernstein; Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian and author; William Baker, former President of WNET and a professor at Columbia; and Michael Ruhlman, an author and chef. The epithets after these individuals’ names, however, only begin to describe their accomplishments and personalities.

Most of the speakers in the series are not confined to a single field or area of expertise. For example, Jeff Hoffman, another one of the 2013-2014 speakers, is a founder of a company that aids startups, an academic advisor to colleges and former chair of a philanthropic organization that makes disability-accessible sports equipment.

The Town Hall series, one can easily claim, increases the quality and quantity of educated discourse in our city.

But recent events put that position as a hallmark of knowledge at a risk.

Announced Monday night and then heralded in the next day’s Daily, the Town Hall of Cleveland series is changing venues next year. Instead of residing in the historic Ohio Theater, the series will travel five miles up Euclid Avenue to the new Tinkham Veale University Center. On Monday, during her opening remarks, Barbara Snyder hailed this development as one that will connect University Circle to the city and provide a single venue for academic discourse in Cleveland.

A quick glance around the theater Monday night, though, suggests that the move to University Circle will be disastrous for the series. The audience, as with most public lectures, appeared to have an average age around 55 years old. Those younger than the average were largely young professionals, fresh out of work from a downtown law, accounting or consulting office. There were small groups of others: the six-person contingent from CWRU and the slightly larger, approximately 15-person group from Cleveland State University. But again, the majority of the crowd were business people, just freed from work.

The timing of the event, 6:00 p.m. on a Monday night, is especially suited to the working professional. On the way back from a day at the office, one can stop at the theater for an hour of discourse before returning home. Moving the event five miles from downtown, in the direction opposite to which most young professionals travel, promises to decrease the already sparse audience to smaller numbers.

We can look at the lectures that already occur on campus to get an idea about the future of the Town Hall series. Instead of the working professionals attracted by the current events, the new series will be dominated by retirees, the average age of the program increasing, not decreasing, from the current. At CWRU, we already have the opportunity to take advantage of lectures from the humanities (Baker Nord) to the law to the Joseph Callahan Distinguished Lectureship every year. Adding more will not change the problem.

Students at CWRU, despite some our best efforts, are disinterested in attending talks from scholars, when they otherwise could be playing games or “studying.” At least downtown, the Town Hall series informs young professionals and changes the discussion in the top levels of our city’s business. Moving the series east, while convenient for me, eliminates that outcome and instead relegates it to the same category as most of the lectures already at CWRU: near ignominy.

As much as it pains me, the lecture series should remain downtown. While it is inconvenient to some of us, the impact it can have on public discourse, on the future, is far greater there.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, vice president of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and former chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.