Iconic journalist, author and television personality Barbara Walters, known for the multitude of interviews she has conducted with famous world figures, will deliver the 2012 Meliora Weekend keynote address on Saturday, Oct. 13 in Kodak Hall.
Late night comedian Craig Ferguson will be this year’s featured comedian and will perform two shows on Friday, Oct. 12. Meliora Weekend is set for Oct. 11 to 14.
Executive Director of Alumni Relations Kevin Wesley expressed overwhelming optimism with the choice of Walters and the message he hopes she will deliver.
“Walters is a pioneer in journalism and, particularly, she is one of the first women leaders in the field of journalism,” Wesley said. “She has interviewed countless world leaders over the course of her career, in addition to her work in popular culture. I think her perspective on news and entertainment today will be pretty relevant, especially right before the presidential election.”
Since Meliora Weekend will transpire shortly before November’s election, Wesley said it was important to ensure that the speaker would not be campaigning. But, he said that the politically slanted focus of last year’s two big names — President Bill Clinton and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia — did not factor into this year’s choice.
“Last year we had two pretty iconic figures from two sides of the political spectrum here for the same weekend,” Wesley said.
“That’s not typically the case, but we do try to provide an array of perspectives on world issues over time.”
Wesley added that Walters has been “a part of our living rooms for decades.” Given the breadth of interviews she has conducted with figures from politics to pop culture, Wesley believes that “her perspective will be a fascinating one for our viewers to hear.”
Walters first became known as a television morning news anchor on NBC’s “The Today Show,” where she worked for over 10 years. She then spent 25 years as the co-host and chief correspondent of ABC’s prime time news magazine program “20/20” and, through her work on ABC Evening News, became the first female co-anchor of network evening news. In 2004, Walters changed her role at ABC, increasing her number of primetime ABC News specials, in addition to her well-known “Barbara Walters Specials.”
Walters has also interviewed every president and first lady since Richard Nixon and was chosen to be the moderator for the third and final debate between presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976. Some of her notable exclusive interviews include current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Martha Stewart, former Vice President Al Gore, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Great Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and many more.
Walters, who is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, became a New York Times best-selling author with her 2008 memoir “Audition” and has received 12 Emmy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 30th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2009.
Despite what may have seemed like the impossibility of topping last year’s keynote speaker — Clinton — whose appearance in Rochester coincided with the launch of UR’s largest capital campaign in history, the Meliora Challenge, Wesley said Alumni Relations does not think about the choice of a speaker in terms of a competition.
“We knew that last year was a special year for Meliora Weekend, so my aim was not to try to top last year,” Wesley said. “My aim was to continue to provide a thoughtful array of programs for the weekend.”
A list of about 150 potential speakers is kept and continually edited and updated year round before a speaker is chosen, a process that begins in earnest nearly immediately after each year’s Meliora Weekend concludes.
For the first time, Meliora Weekend planners solicited advice from Campus Activities Board (CAB) for the choice of the comedian.
“What we wanted to do is change the process so that we gave CAB a little bit more insight into how we go about choosing the entertainer,” Wesley said. “We wanted their input as to what kind of entertainer would really resonate with the student body.”
According to Wesley, CAB prepared a “short list” of entertainers that they thought would be interesting to the student body. Wesley believes that finding the balance of someone who appeals to alumni, parents and students can be “tricky,” rendering the talks with CAB this year useful for gauging student desires.
Ferguson, originally from Scotland, is currently the host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” an Emmy Award-nominated, Peabody Award-winning late-night talk show. Ferguson is also well known in the U.S. for his role as the office boss Nigel Wick on “The Drew Carey Show,” a role he played from 1996 to 2003. He has written and starred in three films, directing one of them, and has written two books — “Between the Bridge and the River” (a novel) and “American on Purpose” (a memoir).
Specific times for Ferguson’s Friday shows have not yet been set.
While a lottery system was instituted for tickets to last year’s keynote address in the fall, this year a lottery system will replace the summer online registration process many believe to be chaotic and unfair.
“The lottery decision was a result of us listening to a lot of feedback and looking at what the process was,” Wesley said. “Interest in our keynote speaker and in Meliora Weekend has grown and the system we had in the past of everyone logging on at the same time for a small number of tickets created a great deal of frustration.”
Wesley believes the new system will help eliminate the rush for tickets and allow everyone a more equitable chance because people will have multiple days to enter the lottery, rather than having to be online at one specific time.
Although Wesley said he does not yet have a clear sense of demand, multiple simulcast venues are planned for the keynote address, currently one on the Medical Center campus on one on the River Campus, and more will be added as demand dictates.
Last year, Clinton’s speech was simulcast in the Palestra, Strong Auditorium, the Class of ’62 Auditorium and Eastman’s Kilbourn Hall. The live address was also held in Kodak Hall last year, which seats 2,326 people — 600 more than the Palestra on the River Campus, the site of the keynote speeches for the last five years prior to Clinton.
Wesley also said that no decision has yet been made on whether the speech will be streamed, a decision that was made only a week before Clinton spoke last year because of extremely high demand.
“We have that option, but we are not committing to it yet,” Wesley said, adding that it would likely be a decision made after registration is finalized in August.
Wesley said he was “happy with the execution” of the stream, especially given the short amount of time in which Information Technology (IT) had to put it together, but said he was somewhat surprised at how relatively few people used it — IT estimated that about 300-400 people watched the stream, though this estimate is likely flawed since many people presumably watched it together.
Wesley also hinted at some other events that will make this year’s event special, one of which will be a NROTC celebration attended by a high-ranking military official whose name has yet to be disclosed. This year’s weekend will also be a special milestone anniversary weekend for some student organizations, including study abroad and the American Sign Language program; Wesley said that Alumni Relations made an extra effort this year to devote resources to helping student organizations plan programming for the weekend and connect with alumni.
Academic programming for the weekend is still being firmed up, though Wesley said there will be a professor panel on the elections and one on improvisation in life, the latter delivered by Eastman School of Music professor Christopher Azzara.
Campus reception to the choice of Walters was generally positive.
English professor Jim Memmott, who teaches an array of journalism classes at UR and works for the Democrat & Chronicle, said he thinks Barbara Walters is a “fantastic choice.”
“From a journalistic standpoint, I’ve always admired her ability to establish empathy with the people she interviews and at the same time ask them difficult questions,” Memmott said. “It’s sort of the iron fist in the velvet glove.”
Memmott added that he also believes her to be a good choice because she “fought hard to get ahead in television and television news where women had to do more and be better than their male counterparts,” something he believes to still be the case for women in journalism today.
“She will probably have something to say about the election, though it may be that her interest and expertise is almost more international,” he said. “I’d love to hear her talk about the Middle East, about Europe. And, I guess, I’d like to hear her gossip about her own life, a life filled with intriguing romances, etc.”
Senior Alison Canavan said she thinks Barbara Walters is a “wonderful choice” with a broad appeal to students in a variety of disciplines.
“She is an accomplished journalist with great experience to share with our community,” Canavan said. “She has had influence in popular culture for years and is a pioneer for career women specifically.”
Canavan added that she thinks Walters may be “more relatable” than Clinton as a Meliora Weekend speaker because “political opinions won’t interfere with her message.”
Graduate student Tony Broyld agreed.
“Anyone who’s anyone has been interviewed by Barbara Walters,” Broyld said. “You’re nothing until you’ve been interviewed by her.”
Additional reporting by Jason Silverstein, class of 2013.
Buletti is a member of the class of 2013.