Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tips on Organizing a Successful Speaker Series

As the Spring 2010 semester is drawing to a close, I thought that it would be helpful and worthwhile to offer some tips on organizing a Speaker Series. I have been the Faculty Advisor to the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter since the Fall of 2004, since I decided not to leave UMass Amherst, despite a marvelous offer. I decided to stay, partially, due to the students that I had at that time, the challenges and opportunities that I still wanted to avail myself of in New England and the northeast, and the fact that Massachusetts is an intellectual mecca in the US. When I accepted the counteroffer that UMass gave, I also felt that I should seriously look around and see how I could enhance the educational mission at the Isenberg School.

I decided that what was missing and what could both enliven and enhance the visibility and reputation of the programs that I was associated with, from our undergraduate Operations Management program to the doctoral program in Management Science, was a Speaker Series. This initiative became part of the activities of the UMass Amherst INFORMS (Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) Student Chapter, which was reestablished in the Fall of 2004 after a very long period of dormancy.

To-date, our Speaker Series has hosted twelve semesters of speakers. The talks are open to the public and attract an audience from throughout the UMass Amherst campus and beyond. Each semester's full roster of talks is posted weeks in advance and advertised heavily. The chapter officers disseminate announcements on campus, and send out two messages announcing each speaker through two different e-lists. The invitations to potential speakers are sent out months in advance and, typically, come from me, and are copied to the cognizant chapter officer. I also work with a chapter officer who helps in the logistics of making the travel arrangements for each speaker in order to make for a fluid and comfortable visit.

The students follow up with official thank you letters, copies of which (we check this out with the speaker) also go to the speaker's supervisors (letters have even been sent to the President of MIT from our chapter).

These seminars take place on scheduled Fridays at 11AM in the Isenberg School of Management, with lunch following. This kind of schedule has worked very well for us and our speakers and creates a relaxing environment in which to discuss the topics presented. We have had the privilege of having experts speak on transportation problems, humanitarian logistics, food safety, the smart grid, on healthcare, on supply chain disruptions, on employment in green jobs, on research capacity building, and numerous other timely and relevant topics. Some of our speakers were from academia; others from industry, and several are best-selling authors. We attempt to provide a diversity of topics.

We do not require that students attend these talks but those who see the value of them rarely miss one. No speaker has ever canceled on us.

The Female Science Professor, who is an anonymous blogger (and about whose blog I have written about in my blog and I have directly communicated with her as well), writes a monthly column in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This month's article by her, coincidentally, is on departmental seminar series and you can read it here. In the article, she focuses on answering specific questions regarding departmental speaker series. The one that I am involved in is much broader, but she does make many relevant points. Specifically, she says that: many departments believe it is money well spent because of the educational benefits and the positive impact on the department's visibility. Moreover, she states that: In my experience, organized and motivated people are the best organizers—no matter their academic position.

As for our Speaker Series, I have provided the funding for it over 12 semesters, and have even used thousands of dollars from a research award that I received to jump start it. My academic department funds the lunches and every year or so we get additional support for 1 speaker from the INFORMS Speaker Program. I have missed only a handful of the presentations in the past 6 years, even while I was on sabbatical as a Science Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

We still have two more speakers in our series this term and are delighted that Professor Bertsimas of the Sloan School at MIT, who is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering, will be speaking on April 23. We conclude this year's talks with the lecture of Professor Gumus, of McGill University in Canada, on April 30.

However, all good things must, eventually, come to an end. After this semester, I will no longer be able to fund this Speaker Series and to devote weeks every year to its success. This series has helped the chapter garner three national awards from INFORMS and its various officers (two so far) the Judith Liebman award. We will see whether the institution provides financial support as well as whether another "leader" will step forward to continue this intellectually engaging and esprit de corps building activity that has immeasurably enriched the educational experiences on our campus.

As for tips on running a student chapter
, please click here. The chapter best practices guide on that link was co-authored by my former doctoral student, Dr. Tina Wakolbinger, who was the first President of our Chapter in 2004-2005 and who received the Judith Liebman award for her outstanding service of the chapter. It contains additional tips on hosting a Speaker Series.