1. The Education Gradebook

USF's University Lecture Series is in the hands of the students

TAMPA — The students trembled in the shadows offstage, crumpling worn scripts with top-secret names. They were about to announce the celebrities who would come to campus this semester. Many in the crowd didn't know they weren't just announcers, that they had put months of work into this moment.

On cue, they ran onstage at the Round-Up, a welcome party at the University of South Florida Sun Dome on Thursday. Cheerleaders rustled their pom-poms. They flung T-shirts to the roaring crowd, because some things are universally true — people love free shirts, free food and free celebrities. Getting people to love learning just as much lies somewhere in the cracks.

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Stars visit USF every year to take part in the University Lecture Series — speakers like John Legend, Animal Planet star Jeff Corwin, Martin Luther King III, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You might imagine buttoned-up trustees are behind acquiring such big names, but the leaders wear hoodies, have purple hair streaks and are adept at Xbox. They are students.

Woodra Keene, 20, is executive director. She slips into a black blazer before most meetings and takes the helm of the table. The first agenda item is always snacks. Chocolate truffles, cookies and milk, Goldfish crackers, and Lays chips.

Then it's business. A half-dozen students produce the lectures, working under the guidance of a staff adviser and a graduate student, on a budget of more than $200,000 this year.

The money comes from student activity fees. Because the students pay for it, logic goes, they should come. But it's not that simple. The board has to hit the sweet spot between name recognition and substance to fill seats. There is no room for Kardashian vapidness, nor total obscurity.

This summer, they considered Max Brooks, author of World War Z. He was $12,000, but with Brad Pitt starring in the movie, the price was rising. A talk on the zombie apocalypse would be fun, but educational? Frank Warren was $17,500. People might not know the name, but they would know PostSecret, the project he started for people to unload their darkest secrets on postcards.

Mayim Bialik, a.k.a. Blossom, was $30,000. Aron Ralston, who got stuck in a canyon and cut off part of his arm, was $35,000. But he loved colleges so much, he offered a lower price. At $50,000, Ron Paul set off a discussion. Wouldn't they have to bring an opposing political side?

Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno had topics like "always giving 100 percent" for $50,000. Seventeen-year-old Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas was $35,000 for a question-and-answer session, not a lecture. They considered Dolvett Quince, trainer on The Biggest Loser, for $23,500.

Michael J. Fox was $150,000 — no way. Marlee Matlin was $28,000 — maybe? The deaf star could lecture about diversity and inclusion, addiction and abuse.

The board had homework. Google. Crunch numbers. Think.

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USF's lecture series started in 1966 with Moorhead Kennedy, National Review founder William Buckley and Sarah Weddington, who represented Jane Roe. Political activist Angela Davis came in 1978, and investigative reporter Jack Anderson in 1979. In 1987, they got former CIA agent John Stockwell. In 1988, writer Tom Wolfe.

After the lecture series won an award in 1990,, USF drew Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and poet Maya Angelou. Former USF student and lecture series board member Kimberly Choto remembers taking Angelou around campus.

"I kind of felt like, are you sure I'm allowed to do this?" she said. "I was sitting there with Maya Angelou thinking, 'Shouldn't somebody be here?' For me, ULS is the closest thing to being in the business world."

In 1996, Roger Daltrey backed out of his lecture when the Who reunited for a tour. In 1997, Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy spoke for $25,000, the costliest lecture to that date, leaving students puzzled. "Spock's a lot deeper that I thought," one student told the newspaper.

The series was having trouble attracting students. Organizers in 1988 added Drew Pinsky and Adam Carolla, who hosted the sex talk show Loveline. Some called the choice a cheap move. Students said it wasn't dumb at all, that they wanted candid sex information.

Organizers realized the magic was in a challenging yet jazzy roster. They brought Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt, Survivor winner Ethan Zohn and philosopher Cornel West. They brought the Rev. Jesse Jackson and conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

"As a student I remember what it was like to get those calls from several different agents saying, 'I've got the perfect thing for you,' " said David Buchalter, senior vice president at Greater Talent Network Speakers Bureau. As a University of Florida student, he helped book politician Janet Reno and documentarian Michael Moore. "That pressure of having reporters, administrators, all the students saying, 'Bring Oprah!' You just can't get Oprah, so what do you do?"

The student body writes nominations. One Direction. Beyonce. Jon Stewart. Always Oprah.

Keene relishes the less flashy wisdom. When Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's said he failed to get into medical school. When ESPN analyst Herm Edwards swapped football talk with sports fans. When actor Rosario Dawson said she felt responsible to do good things because people knew her name.

"I thought it would be great if those were the people who could be famous," Keene said. "I wanted to find people like that."

After meeting Dawson, Keene decided she wanted to become a talent agent.

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Glossy portraits of the speakers glowed from the screen in the Sun Dome. Keene and board member Samantha Schneider stood under the stage lights screaming the names.

Frank Warren! Dolvett Quince! Marlee Matlin!

The audience screamed appropriately for each. Someone in the crowd professed her love for the muscled Quince. Keene and Schneider bounded off the stage, beaming, then slunk onto the floor back into the shadows. The work had only just begun.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (813) 226-3394.