UW president arranges experience of a lifetime

By Susann Robbins
Gorbachev and Dr. Tom Buchanan address UW students and community Oct. 14. Photo by Susann Robbins

LARAMIE—Friday, Oct. 14, 2011, could be a day many students, faculty members, teachers, Wyoming lawmakers and people of any walks will remember for a long time.

An estimated 6,500 people attended a talk by President Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the USSR, in the University of Wyoming Arena Auditorium.

During the summer, UW President Dr. Tom Buchanan received an email that said President Gorbachev was touring North America sometime in the fall. A few engagements were already set up, but more engagements were to be scheduled.

Buchanan said he had to have someone to verify the opportunity was real. Planning began with President Buchanan's office and Gorbachev's public relations staff working out the details.

President Gorbachev was scheduled to give a speech on Oct. 13, in Vancouver, British Columbia, so Friday, Oct. 14, seemed not only a logical choice but also a lucky one because that was homecoming weekend in Laramie. Buchanan said the combination between a speaker of Gorbachev's magnitude and all the families, alumni and visitors being on campus made it an incredible opportunity for everybody.

Buchanan then called former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., to ask if he could moderate a question and answer session because they had previously worked together and were considered "old friends."

Because President Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the most significant players in the 20th century world history, this was a once-in-lifetime opportunity, Buchanan said.

"Wow!" is how Buchanan recalled hearing Gorbachev's name. The second was the iconic sentence from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan referring to the Berlin Wall: "Mister Gorbachev, tear down that wall!"

Buchanan prepared for his meeting with Gorbachev by reading books by and about Gorbachev. The UW president said he has found most people of Gorbachev's stature are pretty down-to-earth and are easy to talk to.

Although the speech was designed for the students, this particular talk attracted many others including community college and high school students as far as from Jackson, Wyo.

"For those of us who are a little older, we remember a lot of the impact that President Gorbachev had, because we watched it play out. Entry-level freshmen here are 18 years old, so they were born 1992–93, so we have a generation of student now for whom this is history," Buchanan said. "This isn't something they grew up with; it is something they have read about. So I think there is a little difference there, in terms of maybe my perception on how significant Gorbachev has been in world politics and folks that were alive and aware of what was going on back in the '70s and '80s to what students from today might think about it."

UW was permitted to select the talk's topic after brainstorming ideas. President Buchanan wanted to make sure what Gorbachev would touch on had a mix of historical discussion and the current state of affairs.

A faculty organizing committee selected eight questions of 226 submitted to pose to Gorbachev.

The committee was also in charge of other aspects of the event such as the invitation list and the event setup and seating. Eight students selected were to meet Gorbachev and receive an autographed copy of one of his books.