Tuesday, March 4, 2014


One of the great legacies of Vanderbilt University and its students (and something which began just a few years before we arrived on campus) is the annual IMPACT Symposium. Always attracting a world-class caliber of speakers, usually public  figures coming straight out of the daily news headlines, IMPACT represents the "campus as an open forum" idea first championed by Chancellor Alexander Heard when he arrived at Vanderbilt in the early 1960s. But the key distinction for IMPACT is that, it is, and always has been, a student-run organization and event.

This year IMPACT is 50 years old. Here's a look back at its distinguished history, which is still being written as the 2014 IMPACT Symposium was held this month (March) with another distinguished roster of well-known speakers.....


Particularly in its early years back in the 1960s, IMPACT was no stranger to controversy for its choice of speakers. Here's a more detailed look back at two years in particular (1967 & 1968) when the speaker series made news and stayed in the headlines both before and after any speeches were given.....


The controversy over IMPACT speakers continued when we were at Vanderbilt. Our freshman year in the Spring of 1970, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington was most unhappy that controversial Chicago 7 lawyer, William Kunstler (above) was set to speak (along with conservative columnist James Kilpatrick). But, as always, despite pressures, the students and Chancellor Heard stood their ground and maintained Vanderbilt as an open forum.

Ironically, while I covered the Kunstler IMPACT speech while working for WRVU, I have more vivid memories of another visit and speech he made at Underwood Auditorium in the spring of 1975. By this time I was working for WLAC-TV, Channel 5. We had our new electronic video cameras that night and it helped give us a scoop.

The latest craze at the time was "pieing" people, i.e., coming up out of nowhere and hitting a speaker in the face or head with a pie (preferably with cream or custard of some sort on the top). Sure enough, that's what happened. Because we had video tape, we were able to "roll" throughout Kunstler's address and captured the entire incident. Because the other TV stations were using more expensive (and limited) film they did not get the pieing except for its aftermath.

Despite the mess, Kunstler took the prank in good spirits, tasting what was left on the top of his head, pronouncing it tasted good, then leaving it there while he finished his address. Not exactly an IMPACT moment, but one of my first scoops as a TV reporter,and one the station later used in a promotional video to tout the advantages of this new style of "electronic news gathering " (or ENG).

1 comment:

Steve Womack said...


Impact Symposium in 1970 spilled over unto the March Against Oppression with Jerry Rubin (another one of the Chicago 7). I remember you showing up that Sunday in the suit you had worn to Morning Mass...we were were so straight even back then.

I remember covering Rollo May and thinking I had drawn the short straw. Turned out he was a brilliant psychologist that I studied years later in Divinity School.

I also remember covering James Kilpatrick by choice. I guess my conservative tendencies were already showing. Remember how we slipped tiny scraps of paper into the reel to reel tape we used so we could find the quotes later back at the station? Technology has certainly moved ahead since then.

Happy Anniversary Impact Symposium. I guess you always remember the first one the best. I know I do.

Steve Womack