By Meaghan Latella

Last month a renowned civil-rights activist, a columnist for ESPN, an off-Broadway actor and a survivor of mental illness all lectured at Washington and Lee University. But only one of them attracted a full crowd.

Lindsey Purpura, a senior at W&L, attended a lecture on Feb. 19 given by the JCK Foundation, an organization devoted to raising awareness of mental illness. The lecture was in Stackhouse Theater, which seats 189.

“There were six students, two professors, and no [community members] that I saw,” Purpura said. “It was an incredibly personal talk …. It kind of made me sad that it seemed like no one cared.”

Tammy Futrell, associate dean of students at W&L, says low student attendance seems to be a long-standing problem without a clear solution.

When civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams spoke as part of the university’s Black History Month observation to an audience that filled fewer than half the available seats, Futrell noted a disturbing comparison.

“I joked with one of the students [at the speech] about how it’s amazing how students would spend the night in the [Elrod] Commons to get Bill Nye tickets,” Futrell said. “But for someone who was part of the greatest movement in American history, they won’t even show up.”

Full house not an issue at SVU, VMI

Spokesmen for Southern Virginia University and Virginia Military Institute say they don’t face the same problems on their campuses.

Chris Pendleton, director of communications at SVU, said attending guest lectures is routine for most students. Guest speakers come to campus every Wednesday and Friday at 11 a.m. First-year students are required to attend the lectures on Wednesdays, and no classes are held at 11 a.m. on Fridays.

“Everything closes down on campus because we really want students to attend,” Pendleton said. “Attendance is pretty strong. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s strong. It’s sort of just built into the culture of the school.”

A lot of community members also attend the lectures because they occur on a set schedule, Pendleton said.

At VMI, cadets are often required by their professors to attend guest lectures, said Stewart MacInnis, director of communications and marketing. MacInnis said even when attendance is not enforced, he finds that students often attend.

“I haven’t noticed any drop-off in attendance,” MacInnis said. “We may be different because we are VMI.”

At Washington and Lee, professors sometimes require attendance by their classes. But the university seldom requires students to attend events other than first-year orientation sessions. And most lectures occur on an irregular schedule.

Contact brings in big names

Senior David Thomas is chair of the Contact Committee, a student-run organization with a hefty budget for speakers. It was Contact that put popular television scientist Bill Nye in front of a full house in the Keller Theater last fall. In March 2014, famed chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall was also greeted by a capacity crowd in Lee Chapel.

Thomas said his organization uses social media, mass emails and face-to-face contact to spread the word about upcoming speakers.

Jessica Willett, director of web communications at W&L, said it is up to faculty and staff from departments who bring lesser known speakers to inform her office of the appearance.

“Sometimes it’s very last-minute,” Willett said. “If we don’t find out about [an event] until the day before, we can get it up on social media and the website. But we can’t get it in the paper, [and] we can’t get a poster printed that quickly.”

Willett said her office runs an account called “wlunews” that can be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.

Thomas acknowledged that even with Contact’s successes, lack of communication with students about some campus events is a problem.

“As strange as it is, I think most students don’t know that certain events occur,” Thomas said. “I know even I personally have found out about many events after the fact and [would] have wanted to attend but didn’t know.”

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