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Reformatting the Forum

Editorial Board | Friday, November 5, 2010

The Notre Dame Forum began in 2005 as a way for the University to engage students and faculty about one topic during a one-time panel discussion.

This year’s Forum, “The Global Marketplace and the Common Good,” took on a new format as the discussion is to last the entire academic year rather than during one afternoon.

At first glance, this change appears positive. In place of one panel or lecture, the University planned panel discussions, student discussions and events specific to certain areas of study to engage students throughout the 2010-2011 academic year.

In September, Ed Conlon, Mendoza College of Business associate dean and chairman of the Forum’s working committee, told The Observer that the University decided the Forum could not fully discuss an important issue in just one event.

“The idea was to enlarge the scope of the Forum to encompass a lot of different things in relation to one topic over the course of the academic year,” Conlon said.

Given that the goal is to engage students for an entire academic year, has the Forum’s new style succeeded? We’re not convinced it has.

The Forum’s signature event Wednesday night featured Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist. Bringing a well-known speaker to address this subject area is commendable and generated a lot of enthusiasm.

However, the event was held in the Leighton Concert Hall at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, which only seats 900-950 people. In the past, it was held in the Joyce Center, which could hold a significantly larger amount of people.

The event was free, but required tickets. The tickets were gone in a little over an hour, and many students who desired a ticket were unable to get one. Requiring people to obtain tickets ahead of time also eliminates dorm walkovers, classes sitting together or students deciding spur of the moment to attend.

Friedman’s lecture was engaging and pertinent to the undergraduate student body. Yet, it did not seem to be undergraduates who were attending. Graduate students, professors and adults comprised most of the auditorium, which, despite the sellout, had many empty seats.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that in the past, professors canceled classes and encouraged or required students to attend the highly advertised, one-time Forum event, which was held on a weekday afternoon. As a result, students did attend in large numbers.

Additionally, by holding the Forum’s signature event in the evening, the University created conflicts with other events. For example, there was a women’s basketball exhibition game Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion during the Forum. By requiring tickets and hosting the event in a small setting, students had to plan ahead and stand in line if they wanted to attend.

Like past forums, the event was publicized across campus through an online broadcast and through campus television. But the number of students discussing the event in the days following is less than in previous years.

In theory, the new style of the Forum is commendable. Spreading out the Forum’s events allows students to engage with the topic in their own way and attend the events they find most interesting. But in practice, it still needs to work out some kinks.

Friedman’s lecture suggested the necessity of engagement on the part of the student body. But this year, the undergraduate student population just isn’t engaged in the Forum.

The best way to do this is to return to the old format for the signature Forum event, but to maintain the yearlong, specialized discussions as well.

Move the signature event back into the Purcell Pavilion. Work the topic into class curricula. If necessary, cancel classes for the Forum. Use the signature event as a gateway into more nuanced discussions students could find in the other, smaller events hosted throughout the school year, rather than as an addition to discussions students may not have attended.

The Notre Dame Forum needs to be a combination of academic interest and convenience, or undergraduates will either ignore it or feel they have been shut out of it.

If the format changes to reflect this idea, students will go. They will grapple with the topic at hand. And they will be engaged.