The Penn State University Skeptics Club began with two coffee- shop regulars, Stephen Cumblidge and myself, who met to grumble about the rampant irrationality around us. Late in the summer of '97 we established a University Club with the handful of like- minded students we found. Our early activities included creating photos of a UFO over the University President's office building, presenting some unwelcome facts at a creation science lecture, and attending a Penn & Teller performance.
While very enjoyable, these activities did not fulfill our Club's desire to provide a high-profile skeptical voice on campus and in the surrounding communities. We were a small group but we decided to dream big, and skepticism doesn't get much bigger than James Randi. The following is a report of the work our Club put into arranging and hosting a James Randi lecture at Penn State University, including funding, scheduling and contracts, logistics and advertising.
First and foremost in arranging for a lecture is, of course, funding. Our Club's $7,000 budget for the lecture included Mr. Randi's $5,000 speaker's fee (which goes to the James Randi Educational Foundation), plane tickets, hotel, venue rental and advertising. Most of this money came from the University. Penn State charges all students a $36/semester Student Activity Fee which goes toward student events, speakers, construction of a new student center and other programs.
Our budget request was a small drop in the Allocation Committee's $1.8 million bucket of total revenue, and it was approved with apparent ease. Penn State University clubs are lucky in this respect, but student activity fees are not unique to PSU and funding may be as readily available at other Universities. We received additional financial help from a local bookstore and, when we ran out of those funds, from Stephen and myself.
The next item on the lecture to-do list was the scheduling and contract work. Our first task was to find a date that both Mr. Randi and the auditorium we had selected were available (and not on a home-football-game weekend, and not too near the holidays, and not during mid-terms, and hopefully early enough to avoid snowstorms, and). Next we had to concurrently get the contract signed by both parties and schedule the venue.
We had no problems on Mr. Randi's end; Angela Easton, Mr. Randi's agent, was helpful and very understanding of the problems we were having on the University end. In its defense, the Allocation Committee was revamping its regulations and the event scheduling procedures, but they did create a big headache for our Club. We ended up in a Catch 22 situation -- the University would not sign the contract until we had a venue scheduled, but the event coordinator would not schedule the venue for us until we had a signed contract.
With a little fibbing about having a confirmed venue we got the contract signed. However, when we tried to reserve the venue the coordinator suddenly remembered she had agreed months ago to give it to another club on that date. With some pressure and browbeating on our part she eventually gave us the venue, but at $200 more than her quoted maximum estimate.
The remaining logistical items of A/V equipment, hotel, plane tickets and event-day scheduling involved much less work but were still cause for grief to some extent. Mr. Randi's lecture equipment needs were minimal, and the auditorium staff handled that for us. We specifically scheduled the lecture around football games so that we would have no trouble reserving a hotel room. We had some trouble with the plane tickets, however. Stephen and I used an on-line agency, confirmed twice that we were going to receive first class tickets as per Mr. Randi's contract, but we received coach-seating tickets.
We felt we had been scammed by the agency, so we requested a refund and purchased tickets elsewhere for $300 over budget. Finally, the Club wanted to host a reception on campus for Mr. Randi after the lecture, but that proved to be too expensive -- $6/person for coffee and cookies. We settled instead for good snacks and drinks at a private residence in town, but the lecture ran so late with questions that the reception was canceled anyhow.
The final and very crucial task for our Club was advertising for the lecture. We were challenged, working with an evaporating budget and little experience from our members. After some intense brainstorming we selected a few excellent and successful ideas. We had the lecture announced for free in community-events announcements on campus and local radio stations. We received free advertisements through two campus and one local newspaper features on James Randi and his upcoming lecture.
Our Club's Web page provided free advertising and also reached a wider audience. We designed our own posters and fliers at minimal cost and plastered town and campus with them, focusing on bookstores and high-traffic-area bulletin boards. We were also allowed to put posters and fliers in display cases outside the auditorium for free. The remaining budget money went to advertisements in the student newspaper. The rule we learned was to find the proper people and simply ask for the airtime, wall space or a newspaper article. It usually worked.
As a result of our hard work and dedication the Skeptics Club hosted a very memorable and successful lecture. The Club met with Mr. Randi and our invited guests in the afternoon of October 28, 1998 and then the officers took Mr. Randi to dinner. The turnout for the lecture was a nearly full house of 750 to 800 very receptive students, faculty, locals and guests, the majority of whom stayed for the Q & A session.
Afterward, we were stunned -- our little Club managed to bring one of the giants of the skeptical movement to our University and to fill the auditorium with a receptive audience for him! The Club received many thank-you e-mails and comments plus several new members. Due to the publicity from hosting James Randi's lecture, the Penn State Skeptics Club is becoming a well-known voice on campus and in the surrounding community.