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Speaking up: Senate initiative takes faculty expertise to Virginia's citizens

By Dan Heuchert

Vice President for Research and Public Service Gene Block was visiting the Capitol recently when a state legislator came up to him and said, "You're the one who talks about the biological clocks, right?"

Score one for the new U.Va. Speakers Bureau. Conceived by the Faculty Senate and getting its formal launch this semester, the speakers bureau seeks to boost the University's outreach effort by offering the services of faculty volunteers to educational, civic and alumni groups free of charge. Block's office or the Alumni Association reimburse speakers for travel and lodging expenses.

While such efforts have long been carried out on a piecemeal basis, there was no central clearinghouse to match interested groups with willing speakers, or to quantify just how often such activity was already going on, said physics professor Louis Bloomfield, one of the drivers of the speakers bureau effort. Now there is.

Thus it was that Block, who also heads the Center for Biological Timing, recently gave talks at the Virginia Science Museum, St. Christopher's School and a Kiwanis Club, all in the Richmond area - somewhere along the way entertaining the legislator he would later meet.

"There is an awful lot of relevant research going on at the University that the public doesn't know a lot about," Block said. "The state taxpayers pay for the University. They deserve to know what's going on."

"Not only are we trying to project a sense of what we do," said Faculty Senate chair David Gies, "but we want to capitalize on some of the talent we have and serve the commonwealth. We really want to let people know that we can serve as a resource."

The speakers bureau arose out of the Faculty Senate's intellectual community initiatives, "and also the sense that [the larger community] 'out there' doesn't really realize what we do," Gies said.

Bloomfield, already a champion in translating physics for the masses through his "How Things Work" course and books, seized on the speakers bureau concept when he chaired the Faculty Senate's Research and Scholarship Committee during the 1998-99 school year.

He noted that intellectual community efforts to that point had been largely confined within Grounds. "It seemed natural to me to extend the intellectual community outside the University," he said.

He initially compiled on his own computer the database of faculty willing to speak, in order to get the effort off the ground quickly, but it soon became clear that he would need some help.

Enter Block's office and the Alumni Association, who offered to take over the day-to-day operations of the bureau, with the assistance of Frances Peyton, secretary for the Faculty Senate, who actually matches the faculty with groups seeking a speaker. The effort dovetails nicely with Virginia 2020 efforts in the public service arena.

"None of us could have done this on our own," said Laura Hawthorne, coordinator of public service, who oversees the bureau from Block's office. Faculty are more willing to participate in a faculty initiative than if the administration were to have attempted to start a bureau on its own and asked for volunteers, she said.

Despite virtually no large-scale solicitation, about 60 faculty members have already signed up to give talks, which are grouped under three categories: "Commonwealth Lectures," for civic and non-profit groups; "Scholastic Enrichment Lectures," for children and youth audiences; and "Alumni Association Lectures," for U.Va. alumni clubs across the nation.

The bureau's web pages have been redesigned to make them easier to use for both faculty and outside groups; now that that project is complete, Hawthorne hopes to add speakers to the database on a case-by-case basis, with the aim of building the list to at least 100.

The point is ... the speakers bureau not only encourages faculty to share their knowledge with the public, it also keeps track of their efforts.

A quick glance at the rich assortment of offerings finds everything from practical advice - "Keeping Children Healthy in Day Care," by nursing professor Julie Novak, or "Investment Strategies," by commerce professor Richard DeMong - to weightier matters, as in "Biology of Aggressive and Suicidal Behavior in Adults and Children," by psychiatry professor Dr. Gerald L. Brown - to the entertaining-yet-informative, such as economics professor Kenneth Elzinga talking about "The Economist as Novelist" (he's also a mystery writer).

Recognizing that there are many demands on a faculty member's time, Hawthorne and Gies stressed that faculty members won't be asked to speak more than about one to three times a year.

"There really hasn't been any resistance," Gies said. " ... Nobody's said no. It's an opportunity to share what they're interested in with an interested audience."


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