Six Fridays a semester, Bowdoin students, faculty and staff gather in order “to rejoice in our collegiate purpose, to interact with each other, and to deepen our common understanding, concern and delight.” Common Hour—set aside for the entire community—brings speakers on a wide range of topics to address the Bowdoin community.
Students, faculty and staff choose five out of the six Common Hour speakers for each semester through an open nomination process. The remaining speaker is chosen from the faculty via student nominations only. The annual number of nominations varies, ranging from as few as 10 to as many as 100.
Once the nominations are submitted, the Office of Events and Summer Programs, under the guidance of Associate Director of Events and Summer Programs Brenna Hensley, reviews them all individually and check for speakers that have multiple nominations or that people have shown high degrees of interest in. Hensley and her team research potential speakers, check their availability, and if everything falls into place, invite them to speak.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Hensley. “There’s only six Common Hours every semester; we can’t take every nomination.”
Common Hour is funded through a variety of different sources and changes year to year. The Events Office earmarks money for Common Hour but funds from endowments, departmental budgets and external grants supplement the costs of the events as well.
The amount of money it costs to bring speakers to campus varies from speaker to speaker.
Although speakers like Andy Serwer ’81 P’16 and Kurt Eichenwald P’14 typically charge around $10,000-$15,000 to speak, plus travel and expenses for speaking arrangements—according to their respective speaking agencies, William Morris Endeavor and Inspiring Speakers—many such speakers will charge less for colleges. Bowdoin alumni and parents sometimes reduce their fees as well.
Although there is no official tracking of attendance of Common Hours, Hensley takes an unofficial headcount after most events. Hensley said that attendance fluctuates.
In planning Common Hour talks, the events office projects the attendance based on the number of nominations for a particular speaker, the buzz around campus regarding the speaker, and conflicting events.
In the end, there is no easy answer as to why some speakers are well attended and others are not. Sometimes the events are standing room only, and sometimes only 40 or 50 people will show up to an event that was projected to draw a larger crowd.
“There’s really no rhyme or reason,” says Hensley, “It depends sometimes on the weather...there’s so many factors, you can’t really know.”
When asked, many students said they came to Common Hour due to either interest in the speaker or subject, or encouragement from their friends and peers.
Students who don’t attend regularly, or have never attended Common Hour often cite lack of publicity or say they are usually too busy to attend the talks.
Some students are not aware that Common Hour talks are always on Friday afternoons, and though most everyone realizes that speakers are frequently brought to campus, the differentiation between Common Hour speakers and other speakers is less clear.
Ryan Sanderson ’16 says he has never been to a Common Hour talk, but is not opposed to the idea.
“I haven’t really been aware of what the topics have been this year, but if I found a topic that I found particularly interesting I would go,” he said.
During some of the Fridays without Common Hours, the Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) runs “Uncommon Hours,” during which student-nominated professors give presentations and talks. These events are not controlled by the Events Office, but rather organized by the Committee for Student Affairs in the BSG.
Attendance does not influence budgeting for the Common Hour program.
Speakers must be paid regardless of how many people show up and, because the talks are free, attendance does not offset the cost of speakers in any way.
Attendance does, however, influence location. Having a poorly attended event in Pickard Theater does not look good, and many Common Hours have been held in Kresge Auditorium, a medium sized venue, which works well for most Common Hours.
Hensley would like to see higher attendance and more nominations from students. She encourages students to attend talks by speakers from areas that they would not normally be interested in.
“We bring a lot of great speakers. Sometimes I think it’s a missed opportunity for [students],” she said.