The next steps for the Boe Forum’s future are uncertain after this year’s scheduled speaker, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, died unexpectedly Saturday morning.
“His family lost a father, a country lost a very important person and our campus lost an important opportunity,” President Rob Oliver said.
Scalia was slated to speak to students and community members on March 9, and, according to Oliver, the 3,000 event tickets “flew out the door.”
Saturday’s news means a reevaluation for Executive Director of the Center for Western Studies (CWS) Harry Thompson and the Boe Forum committee. What’s next?
“I really don’t know,” Thompson said. Oliver said this year’s Forum was already nontraditional in that the event was scheduled for spring rather than its traditional fall slot to better fit Scalia’s schedule.
“This was an opportunity to bring to campus someone whose decisions affect people’s lives and will continue to affect people’s lives, and those decisions are studied by students in class,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the Boe Forum committee will most likely meet within the next month to determine whether there is still the chance to bring in a speaker this academic year. While the negotiations to host Scalia began in November 2014, Thompson said not every speaker takes that amount of time to arrange. Thompson also said no money had been paid to Scalia at the time of his death, and the Boe Forum funds for the year are still available for future use.
Nevertheless, each year’s Forum has a specific topical theme, and “there is no Plan B for a Forum that involves discussing the Constitution,” Thompson said. “The reality is we can’t put in place another Boe Forum without conversation.”
Scalia’s announced coming also brought conversation among the campus community regarding legal and social issues, including LGBT rights. According to Augustana Student Association treasurer Mason Van Essen, ASA and the CWS planned to sponsor and fund programs and speakers to encourage dialogue.
“We were hearing student concerns,” Van Essen said. “We recognize that as the student body saying something more…. We didn’t want to just sweep that under the rug. We wanted to embrace that.”
Though Scalia will no longer be coming to campus, Thompson said that if ASA receives a proposal for funding that is passed along to the CWS, it will still be considered for funding.
One student group that had plans to make use of the ASA and CWS joint offer was the Augustana Democrats, led by sophomore Spencer O’Hara. O’Hara said the plan before Scalia’s death was to bring to campus a legal expert with a constitutional law background and potentially a civil rights activist to show how Supreme Court justices can interpret the law differently, arriving at different conclusions from the same information.
“What we were trying to do was to sort of convey to students that there is another way to interpret the Constitution,” O’Hara said. “That there is another way that respects people … while maintaining the principles of the Constitution.”
While O’Hara said there is a chance a speaker of this nature will still be sought out, “if we do have any sort of discussion, it will not be in the context of Scalia.”
“While I disagree with him fundamentally … I think we need to be respectful of him as a sitting Supreme Court justice and that he was serving our court and serving his country,” he said. “With that respect, I don’t think it’s necessary to have a discussion if he’s not going to be here.”
Government professor Peter Schotten, who teaches constitutional law and played a role in the effort to bring Scalia to campus, spoke of Scalia’s planned appearance in a similar way: as an opportunity for dialogue.
“The purpose of provocative speech is to encourage discussion between those who disagree with each other,” Schotten said, adding that the Boe Forum is intended to have a similar purpose.
Both Schotten and Oliver expressed hope that the Forum can deliver that in the future, whoever is invited next.
“Obviously it means that you step back and reconvene and talk about the next opportunity,” Oliver said. “We’ll see what those are.”