July 19, 2002

Famous Speakers Pass Through Cornell's Doors

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Each year, the Ithaca community welcomes a variety of visiting politicians, entertainers, scientists and other speakers. Last year, speakers at Cornell ranged from political moviemaker Michael Moore to psychologist Oliver Sacks. Across the hill, Ithaca College hosted activist Ralph Nader, NBC correspondent John Palmer, and gay rights activist Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard.

Not surprisingly, given Cornell’s reputation for diverse political views, many speakers focused on politics.

With her daughter Chelsea Clinton and actor Ben Affleck, Clinton campaigned heartily for her current Senate position before the 2000 election. During her second visit last year, she addressed concerns relating to food safety and Cornell University’s role in preventing bioterrorism.

In case Cornellians missed both of Clinton’s visits, journalist Beth Harpaz ’81 shared her experiences covering Hillary’s campaign with the President’s Council of Cornell Women last April. Author of The Girls in the Van, Harpaz discussed subjects ranging from women’s role in politics to conversations with Clinton about potty training.

Ithaca hosted several other prominent members of the media as well. Journalist Bob Woodward and NBC correspondent John Palmer spoke at Cornell and Ithaca College, respectively.

Best known for his book All the President’s Men, written with Carl Bernstein, Woodward exposed the Watergate scandal as a rookie reporter for The Washington Post. In Bailey Hall, Woodward spoke about his opinion of President George W. Bush, Sept. 11, and current mass media.

Palmer spoke about his years covering the White House, sharing rarely seen insights into each president.

In addition to journalists and politicians, proponents on both sides of the political spectrum visited Ithaca.

Both liberal activist Ralph Nader and conservative David Horowitz gave political lectures.

Best known for his presidential campaign and his book Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader spoke at Ithaca College about poverty, big business, and the environment. With a quick wit and political idealism, Nader presented his enthusiastic audience with food for thought.

In contrast, Horowitz’s speech provoked anger in much of his audience. A former left-wing activist turned conservative, Horowitz described his opposition towards slave reparations, his dislike of anti-war protestors, and his belief that higher education has a strong liberal slant.

Many visiting entertainers also focused on political issues.

Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, discussed his views on censorship, American foreign policy, and the Supreme Court during his speech at Bailey Hall.

Political satirist and filmmaker Michael Moore described his disgust for the current administration, class differences, and his new book Stupid White Men and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation, in his speech in April. His visit inspired a torrent of political debate, from both liberals and conservatives in the audience and Ithaca community.

Smith Satisfies

Although his films often generate controversy in Hollywood, Kevin Smith proved to be one of the most popular lecturers at Cornell. The writer, director, and actor in several independent movies including “Clerks” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” Smith seemed to approach moviemaking and life with a positive, nearly flippant attitude. Although he arrived late, Smith stayed at a sold-out Bailey Hall until two o’clock in the morning, recounting stories, answering questions and signing merchandise.

Other performances by entertainers included Saturday Night Live’s Dave Chappelle, a presentation by Robert Siegel, editor of The Onion, and a concert by rock group Stone Temple Pilots.

However, not all lectures provided pure entertainment — a few even presented opportunities to learn. Several scientists traveled to Cornell to speak on a variety of subjects, including Bill Nye ’77, Jane Goodall, and Oliver Sacks.

A.D. White Professor-at-Large Bill Nye ’77, better known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” spoke twice at Cornell.

During these visits, he discussed humor, science, and show business. As befitting his moniker, he also performed a few experiments.

While Bill Nye’s visits marked the beginning of his professorship, Dr. Jane Goodall’s speech at Sage Chapel signified the end of tenure as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large. Although Goodall is best known for her work with chimpanzees in Africa, the United Nations recently named her a messenger of peace for her humanitarian work worldwide. While at Cornell, she spoke about her scientific research, her philanthropic pursuits, and her view of the future.

Psychologist Oliver Sacks visited Cornell in Sept., speaking on his experiences working with patients suffering from Post-encephalitic Syndrome. As Sacks described to his audience, the mysterious disease mentally and physically disables patients, leaving them at a standstill in their lives. During his speech and in his book Awakenings, he described his work with his patients, their recovery, and their subsequent relapses.

Some speakers were inspired to speak out after suffering personal tragedies.

Darrell Scott, whose daughter was killed in the Columbine school shooting, spoke about compassion, love and spirituality.

Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew Shepard was beaten to death for being homosexual, lectured on similar themes of love. She described her work toward halting hate crimes and obtaining equal rights for homosexuals.

The Cornell University Program Board (CUPB) organized and sponsored several of these events, including Kevin Smith and Bob Woodward. According to President Ariel Schwartz, the board selects speakers on the basis of student interest and speaker availability. Currently, the club has actor James Earl Jones and humorist Dave Barry scheduled to speak this semester.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher