JJ Abbott is one of the richest students on campus.
His money doesn’t come from his mom and dad, and although he works hard, he gets paid pennies by the hour.
But this year, JJ Abbott has $765,500 of your money. And he’s spending it all.
“It’s an awesome responsibility,” said the executive director of the Pitt Program Council, the student group responsible for planning most of Pitt’s student activities. “It’s not something I take lightly. It’s cool to have a big say in calling the shots.”
More than 15,000 Pitt students depend on Abbott, a senior marketing major in the College of Business Administration, to throw the best year-long party he can. But Pitt’s program council is unique among universities.
“To the best of my knowledge, in this region, we’re the only programming board that can make decisions,” said Abbott. “I don’t think students here realize they have that power.”
This year, when the Student Government Board increased the program council’s funding by more than $25,000, Abbott allocated every penny of it toward lecturers.
In all, the program council dedicated $127,873 to lectures this year. This includes $25,000 each for comedian Mo Rocca and former Playboy bunny Bridget Marquardt and a $30,000 check cut to President Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe, who lectured at Pitt Monday night.
About 350 students attended Plouffe’s lecture, Abbott said.
Because the cost of lecturers is high compared to other events — PPC usually pays more than $50 per student attending a lecture, while more common events such as cooking lessons cost about $10 per student. PPC paid about $85 per attendee at the Plouffe lecture.
Pitt junior Evan Leet was surprised by this figure.
“I would apologize for going,” he said, laughing. “If you followed the campaign closely, then the lecture was a bit of a waste.”
While some people might not frequent PPC lectures if they had to pay out of pocket, the long-used process of using SGB funding to let everyone split the tab encourages many more to attend.
“I wouldn’t have paid to go, but that’s the great thing about PPC,” said Pitt student Rachel Swartz, “I can go for free.”
Pitt is one of the last program boards in the country that focuses on lectures, said Abbott.
“The reality is that entertainment costs are high for people who are popular,” said assistant director of Student Life Tom Misuraca. “Unlike other things, the market’s always going up.”
While Misuraca serves as the program council’s adviser, he has no final say in the decisions the program council makes. While each committee within PPC has a chairperson, Abbott maintains veto power.
Neither does SGB, which gives nearly one-third of its annual budget — funded by students’ semesterly activities fees — to the program council without requiring reports until the end of the school year.
Dean of students Kathy Humphrey, who signs off on program council contracts only to safeguard from legal issues, said she has never blocked a program council project since she took office in 2005.
“As an authority of deciding, ‘This person can come and this person can’t,’ I try to stay out of that,’
she said. “I’ve never determined that a speaker can or cannot come.”
Humphrey isn’t the only Pitt administrator who trusts the program council to spend wisely.
“Our philosophy is to give students autonomy,” said Kenyon Bonner, director of Student Life. “I try to make as few decisions as possible in terms of their programming.”
But are the costs of bringing popular lecturers to campus worth the benefits to students?
“That’s a legitimate question, and it’s a question best answered by the students,” said Bonner. “I think students should look at whether or not the money spent by their student leaders is being used right.”
The numbers aren’t the only way to judge a lecturer’s worth, said Abbott.
Misuraca agreed, saying there’s a value to meeting news makers in person.
“I think its every bit as impressive bringing in a David Plouffe and a Karl Rove than a big rock band,” he said. “Some people think Rove is the devil, but you had an opportunity to meet the devil face to face and ask him questions. You had more than just sound bites and news reports.”
PPC requires that all lectures have a minimum half-hour question-and-answer session with students. And some lecturers partake in additional events while in Oakland.
Monday afternoon, Plouffe spoke with about 100 political science students on a more technical level than his evening lecture, said Abbott.
While Abbott has had the final decision about who visits campus this year, he said his primary source of student feedback for picking lecturers is a committee of about 10 students. Anyone may join the committee.
He plans on meeting with this committee one or two more times this semester, before his term as executive director is up.
“The more you’re involved,” said Abbott, “The more of a role you play in determining how your money is used.”
Abbott added that he also uses attendance at lectures as feedback. Because of limited campus venues with the necessary acoustics and backstage space, PPC lectures are almost exclusively held in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room, which has a maximum capacity of 500 people.
“It’s not really ideal for us,” said Abbott. “If the union had a 1,000 person room, we’d book it.”
But, “To be honest, I don’t know that many times where we’ve turned down that many people,” he added.
Like all of his expenditures, however, Abbott defends his decision to bring in lecturers as just adding to the year-long PPC party. “Without [PPC lectures], there’s no one else who’s going to pick up the slack for that,” said Abbott. “There would be a hole there.”