NU cancels midwinter event after plans fail

Christina Chaey

When Northwestern administrators approved $100,000 in funding for a special Winter Quarter event last spring, students involved had big ideas for speakers or performers: Oprah. The Dalai Lama. Coldplay.

Now, a few weeks before the event was scheduled to take place, university officials have withdrawn funding, citing disorganized planning that left insufficient time to negotiate a deal with possible acts.

The process was mired by miscommunication, said William Banis, the vice president for student affairs who supervised the selection committee of leaders from Associated Student Government, the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee, Residential College Board, Residence Hall Association and A&O Productions.

Deadlines were pushed back multiple times. A decision was made to invite Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert (Communication ’87), leaders said, but by then it was too late for negotiations with either TV personality to succeed.

Student leaders involved said they felt unprepared for planning such a large-scale event with so little time.

“When you consider that nothing has been started, that nothing like this has ever happened, it’s not unreasonable that it’s a huge challenge,” RCB President Erick Bennett said.

A CONFLICT OF INTERESTThe event was first announced last April, after $100,000 in funding was approved for a proposal submitted by Jonathan Webber and Matthew Bogusz, then-ASG president and executive vice president, and Alex White, then-A&O chairman. An additional $100,000 was to be collected through ticket sales.

The deadline for planning was originally Dec. 19, said Helen Wood, director of the Center for Student Involvement. But the process faced difficulties from the start, with ASG and UBPC clashing over control of the money.

“My operating assumption was that UBPC and ASG were more tightly linked than apparently they are,” Banis said. “I was surprised to learn that I wasn’t talking to a unified constituency.”

ASG President Neal Sales-Griffin and UBPC chairman Jonathan Kent both declined to comment, saying the committee is waiting to fully disclose the details of the planning process.

In October, Banis met with student leaders to speed up the process. In November, he said, “things still looked possible.”

By early December, the committee decided that A&O would negotiate with the performers.

The organization donated their winter event funding, about $40,000, in exchange for joint production and booking rights, said A&O chairwoman Syd Cohen.

But dealing with agents for Stewart and Colbert during the holidays proved difficult, Banis said.

“A lot of the inefficiency had to do … with dealing with those external agents,” Banis said. “A lot of people weren’t in the country, they weren’t in their offices, they were on vacation, they were visiting family – it was just very frustrating.”

Cohen and A&O Director of Concerts Forrest Wickman worked throughout Winter Break in a last-minute attempt to secure either act. The deadline was changed to Dec. 31, then to Jan. 5, Wood said.

“We went above and beyond A&O procedures normally to get this together as soon as possible,” Cohen said. “Everyone was aware that we were on a tight schedule, aware of the possibility of not being able to secure confirmation.”

Finally, NU administrators pulled the funding Wednesday.

“I had heard offers were being made over winter break to potential speaker candidates and I’d heard that they weren’t going well,” Bennett said. “Because I had that information, I thought if we didn’t do something soon, that the funding could get pulled.”

MONEY MATTERSBudget concerns were also involved, Banis said. NU’s endowment had been suffering, and the school’s resources were “diminishing,” he said.

“You have to get real clear about priorities,” he said, contrasting the “one-shot fun event, a major event” with the university’s larger concerns.

“If you can pull it off according to the spirit of the allocation, fine,” said Banis, who didn’t want the money to be used, “just because it’s there.”

The money will go into NU’s central fund and the earliest the event could be resurrected is next year, depending on the budget situation, which he says is “less than ideal.”

To some on the committee, the event’s failure was a disappointing surprise.

“Every step along the way we were told, ‘This is completely doable,'” said Anil Wadhwani, whom Kent appointed to represent UBPC on the selection committee. “It was very surprising that the negotiations took so long.”

Banis, who had high hopes for the event, said a future planning process would require more collaboration between student groups and the NU community.

“When you’re doing a new initiative like this, you have a lot to learn and you want to do it right the first time, and so there was a lot of goodwill,” he said.

But in the end, that enthusiasm wasn’t enough.

“We have other pressing needs, and we could use the money elsewhere,” he said.

[email protected] Nelson contributed to this report.