Professors Exercise Right to Free Speeches

Posted: August 1, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Martin Cohen swears he’s been to nearly every senior center there is in the Northern Virginia area. Lugging his videos and multimedia equipment with him, this assistant professor of history and art history goes out into the community to discuss American history and film—complete with movie clips—with octogenarians who often remember the movies he mentions from when they were first released.

Through the University Speakers Bureau, a unique benefit Mason offers to the wider community, professors like Cohen volunteer their expertise and time as speakers for various community organizations, businesses, and government agencies. With topics ranging from back care to 19th century opera, there is something for any group’s interest, and best of all, the talks are free.

Of course, this unique kind of community service sometimes brings with it some unexpected moments. The audience can be a group of 10-year-old Boy Scouts or a roomful of a major insurance agency’s CEOs, and the setting can be anywhere from a tiny conference room to a large auditorium.

Colleen Shogan, assistant professor of public and international affairs, remembers one rather strange incident where she was asked to give a talk on George Washington to a group of retired federal workers, only to find she would be speaking in an Old Country Buffet restaurant. “There I was, standing at the end of a table in the middle of a restaurant giving my speech. It was very interesting,” she laughs.

Rich Miller, associate professor in the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism, who has been volunteering for the bureau for more than a dozen years, recalls one incident in which a slip of the tongue caused him some embarrassment. “I was speaking to an amputee support group and their family members. I thoughtlessly asked for a ‘show of hands’ in response to a question I posed. Yes, the ensuing silence was embarrassing.”

However, in spite of some embarrassing moments, the professors say the rewards of this community service far outweigh the inconveniences. School of Public Policy Professor Robert Rogowsky has been making presentations for about four years on topics ranging from globalization to international trade issues, but his most popular speech is “Getting to Happy,” a light-hearted talk in which he outlines a seven-step program to a happier life. One of his favorite experiences with the speech was after an elderly woman in the audience lamented that she felt she was having less of an impact in the many groups and organizations she was working with. Rogowsky asked her how long she had felt like that, and she said, “Since 95.” He replied, “Ah, for a few years then?”

“No,” she corrected, “Since I was 95.”

“I could only nod, smile, and take inspiration that I could be so ambitious after 95,” Rogowsky recalls.

Days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Miller recalls speaking on spiritual wellness to a community commerce group. He felt that the talk wasn’t going so well and he wasn’t making the points that he wanted to make. He ended the presentation early and started to leave, but then he abruptly returned to the podium.

He blurted out to a rather puzzled audience, “I have something to say. I believe the true definition of spiritual wellness is realizing that each of us will have to decide if we are going to forgive the people who committed the terrorist acts last week.” He recalls leaving a stunned group that day, but says now, “I realize it was a defining moment in my life.”

There are more than 100 professors, retired professors, and alumni who currently work with the University Speakers Bureau, and approximately 400 different community organizations have used the service over the years. Community groups can search the web site by topic, length of presentation, or name. Depending on demand, a professor might go out to speak multiple times in one month.

“I only wish I could do more to thank our speakers,” says Traci Claar, director of community relations. “They do such a wonderful job and volunteer their own time to make this program a success, and they also spread the word about George Mason.”

Communication Professor Sheryl Friedley says she loves the community service component of the Speakers Bureau. “It’s a responsibility we all have, to give back to the community, and this is an enjoyable way to do it.”

Speaking on gender issues, nonverbal communication, and men and women in the workplace, Friedley says she often gets some lively discussions from her talk. “The fun groups are the senior citizens because I love to hear their life experiences,” she says. “They love to come, and they are always engaged in the discussion. Plus, sometimes the men think I’m cute, and it’s always fun to get hit on,” she jokes.

For Shogan, a self-proclaimed history buff, the Speakers Bureau gives her a chance to interact with like-minded people. Shogan has traveled all the way to the George Washington Birthplace Monument on Virginia’s Northern Neck to speak on American presidential history. “It’s always been a great experience for me professionally and personally,” she says. “There are a lot of people interested in presidential history in this area, and it’s really nice to interact with them. It’s been pretty memorable.”

For Cohen, having an appreciative audience is a reward in itself. He says that he always gets applause and occasionally a standing ovation after one of his presentations at the senior centers. In October, he will travel to a site in Maryland to give a presentation. “I usually don’t travel that far, but this group is willing to give me two hours for my talk. I figure if people are willing to listen to me for that long, it’s the least I can do.”

Write to at