GUEST EDITORIAL: We don’t have to like John Bolton, but should we pay him to speak?

The student body deserves to know what fee Vanderbilt is paying the Chancellor’s Lecture Series Speaker.

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Hunter Long

Kirkland Hall houses Vanderbilt administration. (Hustler Multimedia/Hunter Long)

Miranda Cross, Guest Writer

“As such, while students are right to deny hatred a platform at their institution, we can’t go after every problematic lecturer.” Yesterday, the Hustler Editorial Board published a defense of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s upcoming appearance at the Chancellor’s Lecture Series event alongside former Obama Administration National Security Advisor Susan Rice. While I agree with the editorial board that de-platforming speakers whose political beliefs we disagree with is problematic, they failed to consider the impact of the astronomical speakers fee that Vanderbilt is likely paying Bolton to appear at the event. 

In this instance, the student body deserves to understand that Vanderbilt is not just providing a platform for Bolton to share his views but is actively contributing to his profiteering off of service in the Trump Administration. I reject the Board’s argument that this event is similar to the 1967 lecture featuring Strom Thurmond, simply because so much has changed regarding speakers fees and the promise of open and honest debate at an event like the Chancellor’s Lecture Series.

According to a New York Times article, Bolton’s appearance at Duke University on Monday, Feb. 17 was more of a glorified book tour than a substantive conversation about foreign policy. Bolton repeatedly evaded questions about Ukraine and the president’s impeachment trial, and instead “offered coy answers, suggesting it would all come out in his book if he is allowed to publish it.” At one point, he refused to answer a student’s question about the president’s phone call pressuring President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine; instead he promised the student that they would “love Chapter 14” of his forthcoming book. 

It’s not out of the question to expect that Bolton’s appearance at Vanderbilt will be more of the same— he has repeatedly refused requests to share information with members of Congress conducting the impeachment trial of President Trump, including Rep. Adam Schiff, but has instead remained intent on using his knowledge as a tool to sell his memoir.

In addition to the lack of substance that Bolton’s appearance is likely to have, it’s also worth considering that Vanderbilt is most likely paying Bolton directly to speak at the event. As a long-time member of the Vanderbilt Programming Board Speakers Committee, I am no stranger to the astronomical fees associated with having a high-profile speaker like Bolton come to Vanderbilt. Students on the committee are often shocked that speakers come back with quotes in excess of $100-200,000 for a one-night appearance at Vanderbilt. Although some of these costs are indirect— including agency fees, security fees, and travel— it is more than likely that Bolton is making a handsome profit off of his participation in the Chancellor’s Lecture. Of course, the student body will never know how much he is making, since the Office of the Chancellor historically has not released CLS speaker costs to the student body.

I agree with the Editorial Board that de-platforming a speaker for their political beliefs is not acceptable. In fact, I worked for an organization that calls for the end of de-platforming all speakers, including openly controversial ones like Milo Yiannopolous. I agree that it’s the obligation of a university to provide an environment where diverse ideas can be discussed and debated openly, and John Bolton does have a long and distinguished foreign policy career. Students should be free to ask him about his continued support of the Iraq War, his advocacy for regime change in Iran, Syria, and Libya, and his argument that the US has the authority to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea. However, I fear that this isn’t what will happen at the event. Instead, Bolton will more than likely use this opportunity to dodge questions and promote his memoir, all the while being paid by Vanderbilt.

The Chancellor’s Office should be open with students about how Bolton was selected to speak at this event, how much he is being paid, and also what they are doing to encourage active intellectual debate at the event. Otherwise, I fear that our tuition dollars are only contributing to Bolton’s attempts to squeeze money out of his time in the Trump Administration, while avoiding taking responsibility for enabling the president to make a mockery of impeachment.

 

Miranda Cross is a senior majoring in Public Policy Studies.