The Ashbrook Memorial Dinner speaker dilemma

Scholars raise questions about lack of ideological, political diversity

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with a group of Ashbrook Scholars during her visit to AU in September 1993. One of the key benefits of being an Ashbrook Scholar is the opportunity to meet with speakers in private sessions. Thatcher was the speaker at the 10th John M. Ashbrook Memorial Dinner.

For four decades, the Ashbrook Center has attracted an impressive array of prominent conservative voices to the Ashland University campus.

From President Ronald Reagan, who dedicated the Ashbrook Center on May 9, 1983, the list of speakers includes an array of former presidents and vice presidents, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, diplomats, Supreme Court justices and other government officials. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the most recent on Oct. 28.

Given the center’s namesake – the late Congressman John M. Ashbrook was an early leader in the modern American conservative movement in the 1960s and 1970s – it’s only natural that the center would feature speakers of a conservative bent, and virtually all have been Republican; only two have been women – Thatcher and former First Lady Barbara Bush. But for fund-raising purposes, they need to appeal to the center’s conservative donor base.

But as the Ashbrook Scholars program has grown in the number of students, it has become more diverse. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has taken a turn to the right, particularly on social and cultural issues.

That has led some Ashbrook Scholars to believe the speakers for the annual John M. Ashbrook Memorial Dinners and the noontime Major Issues Lecture Series need to reflect a broader range of political thought. And they would like a bigger say in the selection of those speakers.

Students, like sophomore Noah Harshbarger, believe there isroom for improvement in the program especially when it comes to valuing student opinions.

“If we actually pride ourselves on being able to think for ourselves, we must bring in nonpartisan speakers with nonpartisan topics,” Harshbarger said. “If we are old enough to elect our government officials, we are old and wise enough to decide our own speakers. ”

“If they do not want to bring in nonpartisan speakers, then we should be bringing in speakers from all diversities of ideology, not just old white super-conservatives over and over again,” he said.

Views from across political spectrum

Other students believe the program could have better diversity outreach if a wider variety of speakers were brought instead.

Sophomore Ashbrook Scholar Skylar Phillians said Ashbrook speakers should come from all sides of the political spectrum including Democrats, Libertarians, and members of the Green Party.

“If they really don’t want to teach us ‘what to think’ then this is how to do that. Only having one party represented is like giving a child one crayon and telling them to make a rainbow, ” she said.

Phillians differentiated between the political speakers and the more academic colloquium presentations.

“I get very drained hearing the same opinions over and over again. Most of the time, political speakers don’t relate their speech to the topic that is advertised. The colloquium speakers are the most insightful because they aren’t normally politicians,” she said. “They are professors and researchers who have presentations to show us during their time. Even when I am not interested in the topic, I still find myself learning and paying attention.”

Speaker selection a ‘collaborative process’

Ashbrook speakers are chosen based on experience in their field and what insights they would bring to those in the program, according to Jeff Sikkenga, executive director of the Ashbrook Center.

“It’s a collaborative process between myself, the staff and the Ashbrook Board. We want to bring speakers who have interesting experience and insights, especially on matters of public or academic concern. The first question we always ask about a potential speaker is: Will this be good for the students?”

Students’ opinions vary from speaker to speaker, feedback is heard during the process and considered when planning the semester’s speakers.

“We are always open to student ideas for speakers, and we receive some every year. For the colloquia, the students often have a small reading ahead of time. For every event, the students get to ask the speaker questions, which is often the best part of the event,” Sikkenga said.

The spring semester speaker schedule is still being compiled.

Phillians said scholar concerns about lack of diversity in speakers have been ignored.

“Numerous people other than myself feel this way. It has been brought to the program’s attention and ignored. I want to do my part and speak up, hopefully announcing this publicly will allow for changes to be made,” she said. A handful of Ashbrook scholars contacted by The Collegian shared similar sentiments, but did not want to be quoted on the record.

Other scholars satisfied with speakers

While some scholars are unhappy with the speaker selection,others think the program should continue bringing in speakers with similar viewpoints as past speakers.

“If I was to advise the directors on bringing in new speakers I would encourage them to continue the type of speaker they have brought. I would also like to see a continuation of intellectuals coming to campuses, a strong representation of Constitutional scholars on and off the court system, or more foreign politicians” said Sean Rhodes, a sophomore Ashbrook Scholar.

Other Ashbrook scholars walk the line of neutrality on the subject of speakers in.

“For me, regardless if I agree with all of the particular views of a speaker, listening to them speak and express ideas makes me think and also sparks conversations among the Ashbrook students,” said Tiffany Sims, senior Ashbrook Scholar and Student Senate President.

“A lot of good dialogue has taken place after hearing speakers speak. Students may agree with a speaker or disagree and defend their own ideas which helps to teach us how to engage in respectful and productive conversations,” she said.