The 68th Annual Conference on World Affairs kicks off at CU Boulder next Monday. More than 100 participants will convene on a variety of panels throughout the week.
This year however, there is somewhat of a cloud hanging over the conference. Many long time participants and volunteers are boycotting the event. The controversy goes back more than a year to when John Griffin took over as director of the conference.
Maura Clare worked for the CWA for 20 years. She was fired last December and in February she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the school of age and gender discrimination. Because of the lawsuit neither Clare nor CU spokespeople will comment on her particular situation, but in addition to Clare’s dismissal, the entire staff at the Conference has turned over since last year.
Piper Jackson-Sevy was a student volunteer for 4 years and then an employee before she handed in her notice in 2015, along with the other staff. She said at that time that there was “a culture of fear and secrecy” with John Griffins new leadership.
“We were fighting tooth and nail to keep the most important things the same and it’s been vindicating this year to see a lot of those things that we were fighting against and saying – this is going to happen if we don’t make major changes to the leadership – those things are happening.”
Jackson-Sevy says one of the major changes is paying speakers. It was announced in February that Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple was being paid $50,000 to give this year’s key note address. Conference Director John Griffin says this is a collaboration with the Cultural Events Board –a student-run group with a budget for bringing big name speakers to campus. They’re footing the bill. Griffin says bringing a popular speaker like Wozniak is an effort to engage more students. But Piper Jackson-Sevy says it doesn’t matter who is paying, any form of speaker compensation completely changes the culture of the conference.
“I think the point of the conference is that we bring in 100 speakers from all over the world and they come from free and if some of them are paid and some of them are not, you start to create tiers of participants. And when you’re asking these people to come to Boulder, use a week of their vacation time, pay for their own air fare, stay with a family in Boulder, that’s a pretty serious ask from somebody and then when they get to Boulder and find out that some people in the conference aren’t experiencing that same thing, then you’re basically going to have classes of participants and that’s not the point.”
Conference Director John Griffin says Steve Wozniak is the only speaker being paid, and that the long established tradition of not paying participants continues.
“We have 100 speakers coming from all over the world who are with us for 5 days and none of those people are receiving any honorarium so I feel like there’s a lot of continuity with the traditions of the conference in that respect.”
Other changes to the conference include adding some local speakers, which has also been criticized for going against one of the founding principles of “bringing the world to Boulder”— meaning that every panelist was supposed to come from outside the Front Range. But conference organizers say locals are only participating as guest speakers in very occasional panels.
Last June, 85 participants from previous conferences wrote a guest editorial in the Daily Camera saying they would boycott this year’s event due to the changes. One of the signatories was Magdaleno Rose Avila. A former CU student himself, he had met the conference founder Howard Higman when first visiting the conference as a high school student.
“I met Howard and my first CWA was when I was a senior in high school, my sister was a student and brought me up here and I was very enthralled by it.”
Rose-Avila said the new conference leadership took a wrong turn and alienated many participants and community members as a result.
“This was a unique conference and they’ve taken some of the uniqueness away…I think the idea is that when you have an institution that is so powerful and so big like this, you’ve got to have real honest communication with the community you live in and they basically shut it off and said we don’t want to hear from you and pushed people away that were really committed to the cause.”
Another of the signatories Liz Weir had been participating at the Conference for many years, leading story telling panels. She said she is heartbroken over the changes to the conference, particularly the loss of so many experienced staff and volunteers.
“The atmosphere at last year’s conference was really bad. We the participants, the staff and volunteers all worked really hard and put on a great conference, but behind the scenes you could tell there was a lot of tension.”
Stephanie Rudy is a volunteer who has been involved with the conference for 17 years. She is now the Community Chair – elected by other volunteers. She says the changes have actually made the organization more democratic.
“We put together a strategic plan that really has goals that we are responsible for meeting. It has a governance document so it really set up everyone’s position, what they do and what they’re responsible for and how they fit into the organization which is a new thing. We also brought on a board of directors which is a very new thing for the conference. The board consists of four people for the University, four people from the community and a student. That board is really mostly concerned with making sure that we fulfill our responsibilities from the strategic plan. So some people had problems with that and I’m sorry that they did but we think that we have a better structure because of it.”
Former Conference Director Jim Palmer rejected the implication that there was no strategic plan before Griffin took over. In an op ed in the Daily Camera last year Palmer said that a strategic plan had been done in 2009. Palmer said that ignoring that plan and the “ solid foundation of institutional memory and culture is not a wise option in assessing the health of any organization, especially one rich in tradition and with a record of success.” In addition to the many panelists who have pledged not to return, and the turnover of the entire staff, many volunteers are also no longer participating. That loss of institutional knowledge will no doubt impact the conference going forward says former volunteer and staffer Piper Jackson-Sevy
“I think the conference was so challenging to put on in terms of logistics and so many people gave so many hours year after year after year, that they were basically experts in what they did, and losing that talent I don’t think it can run as smoothly as it has in the past.”
Conference head John Griffin says the people who are boycotting the event are not representative of the entire community.
“In fact several of the speakers who signed that letter that you referenced are attending this year and many more have attended in the past and didn’t sign that letter and will attend that year. So we have that continuity. We also have a number of volunteers who have been involved in the conference for a very long time and who remain involved in the conference.”
Community Chair Stephanie Rudy says she is sad that many long time volunteers have chosen not to participate, but she says they will be welcomed back if they choose to return.
“So hopefully after this year when we put on a good conference in April, people will come back and we would welcome them with open arms if they do.”
Also new this year are the addition of evening panels and the introduction of a conference app.
The 68th Conference on World Affairs runs next Monday through Friday. As we have in the past, KGNU will host many of the panels live on air, you can get the full line up of the KGNU CWA panels here.