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USF students shell out $70,000 to bring Oscar-winner Viola Davis to campus

Viola Davis
Viola Davis
Published Mar. 28, 2017

TAMPA -- Six minutes was all it took for University of South Florida staffers to realize they were going to need a bigger building.

They had announced that Academy Award-winner Viola Davis would deliver a free lecture on campus on April 4, during its annual USF Week. As soon as a link for tickets went live, students snapped them up.

Behind the scenes, USF officials conferred. The university has hosted big speakers before, but this demand blew past their expectations.

Each year, students on the University Lecture Series board decide how they want to use student funds to bring speakers to campus, hitting the sweet spot of entertaining and educational.

Viola Davis was the dream speaker on students' lists this year, even before she won an Oscar for her role in Fences and delivered a rousing acceptance speech.

"The students truly wanted her," said Monica L. Miranda, who works with the student committee as director of the Center for Student Involvement. "They didn't want her because she was an Academy Award winner. That was a bonus to them."

Booking the star of The Help, Doubt and ABC's How to Get Away with Murder cost $70,000, pre-Oscar.

Organizers thought that 900 seats in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom and 700 seats to watch the live stream would do just fine, but students quickly proved them wrong. Soon they announced a move to the Sun Dome, where members of the public will be able to get in, too. (It's first-come, first-served, so don't dally.)

Davis is expected to speak about her personal and professional life, from childhood poverty to battling the biases of Hollywood.

Despite Davis' price tag, USF officials said her lecture didn't cut too deeply into their budget for other speakers. This year, they've brought in a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, a deaf activist who competed on Dancing with the Stars and "What Would You Do?" host John Quinones, among others.

"Our mission is to get as diversified a lineup as possible to be the most educational," said Marion Huntley, a USF program director.

A few years ago, the Times took a behind-the-scenes look at how students choose the year's speakers.

"The right choice is listening to the students," Huntley said. "As long as we're listening to what the students want, we're making the right decision."

Doors open at 7:45 p.m. For more information, check out USF's site.