Weekly forums continue to draw crowds of students, professors

Despite the upcoming departure of its founder, the Gaudino forum has attracted a substantial following in its second year.

Chair of Philosophy Samuel Fleischacker, the current Gaudino scholar, launched the weekly forum last year in order to provide a place for faculty/student interaction. At the forums, members of the college community gather to discuss topics of interest.

The topics of the forum have varied from international issues, such as the situation in Kosovo, and Iran-US relations, to more local subjects, like the party policy, teaching as theatre, grade inflation, cheating, and political views in academia. Student organizer Kristina Gehrman ’00 said the forums draw an average of 40 students each week. The most popular forum was attended by approximately 90 people.

Fleischacker said before the creation of the forum there was a lack of intellectual groups and activities on campus.

“Before the Gaudino forum, the extra-curricular activities here were almost exclusively artistic, sports, or outdoors-related,” he said. “Now there is a more intellectual discussion, and content-centered alternative.”

“The forum provides faculty with an opportunity to talk to students about political or intellectual issues that don’t normally come up in class,” he added. “It is a place where all political views can be represented.”

However, Fleischacker announced earlier this semester that he will leave Williams at the end of the year and the future of the Gaudino forum remains unclear.

In an effort to ensure the permanence of the forum, Fleischacker has been working with Associate Professor of Political Science Mark Reinhardt to organize the forums this year. He said he hopes Reinhardt will be able to succeed him as leader of the forum when he is gone.

“Mark Reinhardt and I are trading off running the forums, and this seems to be working well,” Fleischacker said. “I hope the forum will continue after I leave and that by involving Professor Reinhardt it will have some institutional memory, even with a new Gaudino scholar.”

Reinhardt said he has been pleased with his recent involvement in the forum and with Fleischacker’s leadership.

“The forum is clearly appreciated by the people who come,” he said. “It meets a need that was not met previously.”

“Sam [Fleischacker] has done fantastic things, including a trip to India and instituting discussions that are less formal than in the classroom, yet more meaningful than the average conversation at the snack bar.”

Meanwhile, the forum, while not drawing enormous crowds, has remained consistently popular.

“I think the forum helps root the College to analysis of contemporary issues,” said Laura McMillian ’02. “Williams students are very conscious of how society works and of politics and therefore have a healthy interest in it.”

Dan Williamson ’01 said he appreciates the opportunity to interact with his professors in a different context.

“It’s interesting to learn something about your professors outside of class and to hear views that they generally do not get to express in class,” he said.

Fleischacker said in establishing the forum he wanted to get away from the trend of bringing only big-name speakers to campus through the Gaudino fund.

“Big name speakers often either have a political agenda or are famous for their glibness and not for their ideas,” he said. “Students often felt that the discussions were sort of empty.”

Williamson said that although he generally enjoys the format of the forums, he has been somewhat disappointed with some of the topics this year.

“I thought it was most interesting last year when they had discussions on campus-related issues, like Williams sports and academics,” he said. “I’ve been a little disappointed this year because there have been two consecutive discussions on the Clinton scandal, which doesn’t really interest me.”

However, Morgan Bart ’02 had a different take on the issue.

“To me, it doesn’t matter if the speakers address political issues or issues on campus as long as they serve up good food for thought,” he said. “I just wish the discourse was a bit more lively, so the forum could give nerdy intellectualism a better name.”

Michelle Kalka ’99 said she prefers it when the forums don’t become bogged down in details.

“It’s difficult when a professor discusses a subject that involves a lot of background information because then you spend most of the time learning the facts and not discussing the issues,” she said.

Gehrman noted that some of the most exciting topics are sometimes least attended.

“The red-flag issues seem to be those least interesting to students,” she said. “This might be because they are already discussing them among friends or have had enough of the issue. The most well received forums are on lesser-known topics that a faculty member might know about, but not have the opportunity to discuss in class.”

Despite the different viewpoints concerning the forums, Reinhardt said he is confident that it will continue to thrive.

“If the Gaudino forum was a television show taken to the networks, I think it would be renewed for another season because it has such a loyal audience,” he said.

The trustees appoint the Gaudino scholar, who chooses what types of programs to sponsor with the Gaudino fund money. In the past, Gaudino scholars have promoted performance pieces, visiting speakers, and service trips.

Reinhardt explained the inspiration for the forum: “Bob Gaudino was a professor of political science department in the 1960s. He was an incredibly passionate and gifted teacher who especially enjoyed discussions on difficult or uncomfortable issues. In that way, he was kind of a Socratic figure.”

Michele Kalka ’99 commented on the transition, “I think that Professor Reinhardt will do a very good job leading the forum this year. He should have interesting ideas of topics, and of possible speakers.”

Despite the behind-the-scenes changes taking place, the format of the forum will remain the same this year. Kristina Gehrman ’00 remarked, “The addition of Professor Reinhardt shouldn’t have substantial impact on the format. However, there’s always the possibility that the forum won’t continue forever on a weekly basis, because there will not be enough faculty and administrators to lecture every Monday night.”