Why is there a convocations program?

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.

What is the impact on campus life?

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.

Convocation presentations can 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.

Around 400 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.

Where do speaker suggestions come from?

Suggestions of possible convocation speakers come from Carleton students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents. Although speaker suggestions can be submitted at any time, an email is sent periodically throughout the year to all students, faculty, and staff to solicit suggestions for convocation speakers, pointing to this online suggestion form.

How are speakers selected?

Around 100 to 150 suggestions are received over the course of each year through an online suggestion form. These suggestions are reviewed 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 bears in mind how the convocation program adds to the collective education of the college:

  • Convocations extend the educational mission of the college.
  • Convocations take learning beyond the classroom.
  • Convocations increase exposure to new ideas and perspectives.
  • Convocations provide opportunities for the college community to consider broad issues together.

The committee also takes into consideration that:

  • Convocations should address topics relevant to the Carleton community.
  • Convocations should stimulate thought and promote dialog.
  • Convocations should have broad interest for the audience.
  • Convocations over the course of the year should cover a wide range of disciplines.
  • Convocations should include diverse perspectives.

The Convocations Committee develops a short list of potential speakers in a variety of categories, and ranks them as to preference.  The events office staff research these potential speakers to determine their availability and cost, and investigate 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 events office is responsible for scheduling and arrangements for the convocations.

Who selects the convocation speakers?

With the exception of the designated convocations, speakers for the remaining weekly convocations are selected by the Committee on Convocation and Common Conversation. Established 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 and at least two students appointed by the Carleton Student Association. The committee is chaired by Renee Faulkner, Director of the Office of Intercultural Life. Two additional staff members include Helen Clarke, the Associate Vice President for Communications, and Noel Ponder, the Manager of Conferences and Event Services.

What are designated convocations?

There are 24 convocations scheduled each academic year (eight convocations in each 10-week term). Included among these are seven 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 alumni or prominent Minnesotans — selected and invited by Carleton’s president.

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 revised 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 the nature of a liberal arts education.

The speaker is typically a senior faculty member, selected by the Provost with input from faculty who are 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.

Honors Convocation

Honors Convocation is an annual all-college assembly held at the end of the 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.

The speaker, selected and invited by Carleton’s president, is typically 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 to their life-after-Carleton trajectories;
  • Who will inspire interest in applying for external fellowships; and
  • Who is not an academic.

Diversity Convocations

The Office of Intercultural Life (OIL) selects and sponsors four convocations each year:

  • Hispanic Heritage Month Convocation (September)
  • Native American Heritage Convocation (October)
  • Black History Month Convocation (February)
  • Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Convocation (May)

How is diversity addressed?

The Office of Intercultural Life (OIL) selects and sponsors four convocations each year:

  • Hispanic Heritage Month Convocation (September)
  • Native American Heritage Convocation (October)
  • Black History Month Convocation (February)
  • Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Convocation (May)

Diversity in the convocations program also relates to having speakers from a wide range of disciplines, vocations, backgrounds, and perspectives. These are valuable in creating a community that values dialogue.

Can convocations be controversial?

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.

– Barack Obama

What is the convocations budget?

While it would be exciting to have a stream of celebrities coming to campus every week, the simple fact is that it cannot be afforded.  Nationally prominent speakers usually get an average of $35,000 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 none 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 range from $2000 to $10,000.

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, so long as 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 individuals known to Carleton faculty and staff 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.

Can I have lunch with a speaker?

Absolutely! Following most convocations at 12 noon (3A), a lunch discussion is held with the speaker and a small group of students, faculty, and staff. A complimentary buffet lunch is provided, and informal Q&A offers an opportunity to discuss ideas arising from the convocation presentation.

If you would like to attend, simply RSVP in advance.

Are convocations open to the public?

Yes! 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. Convocations are also occasionally visited by bus groups of students from Northfield and Faribault schools.