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Roberts to speak at Y.

Campus forum also lands filmmaker Burns

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PROVO — U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts often called future Brigham Young University President Rex Lee by a nickname 25 years ago when a young Roberts worked in the Department of Justice with Lee, who was solicitor general of the United States.

"General Lee" loved the nickname, and now the old friendship is paying off for BYU.

Roberts, 52, has agreed to speak at Brigham Young University on Oct. 23, a priceless boost to BYU's forum program that won't cost the school a dime.

BYU also has landed Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to speak March 27, six months before PBS airs "The War," his 14-hour series about World War II. Burns won Emmys for the films "Civil War," "Baseball" and "Unforgivable Blackness."

"I never turn down a chance to go to Utah," said Burns, who soon will be filming in the state for a documentary on the history of America's national parks that will air in 2009.

Burns said he might preview scenes from "The War" for the BYU audience.

Bagging heavy hitters like Roberts, Burns and best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick, who will speak on Nov. 6, is part of the administration's attempt to add weight to campus forums.

BYU shuts down campus every Tuesday at 11 a.m. for one hour so students, faculty and staff can walk to the Marriott Center for a forum on academic subjects or a devotional on religious matters.

"We have made a concerted effort to upgrade university forums and have lined up some terrific forum speakers again this year," academic vice president John Tanner said last fall during the Annual University Conference.

BYU has increased its budget for forums in recent years as the administration tries to bolster attendance. Speakers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, said Joan Naumann, assistant to the university forum committee.

"We try to include enough in the budget that we can include at least one high-profile speaker during the year," she said.

Burns, who will speak March 27, commands a fee of $30,000 and $50,000, according to the Web site for the All American Speakers Bureau.

"The fee really depends on the speakers," Naumann said. "Some have special fees for universities and some don't. Sometimes we'll try to negotiate a lower fee."

The forum committee contacted Burns directly rather than through a speaker's bureau. That likely led to a discount, though neither Burns nor BYU would reveal the fee.

And in the case of Roberts, the university doesn't have to pay the chief justice anything. Supreme Court justices do not accept speaking fees.

Roberts spoke at BYU in 2002 when he was invited by BYU legal counsel Thomas Griffith to join a conference named for Lee.

Griffith also helped BYU land Roberts this time.

Griffith joined Roberts as a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in June 2005. BYU President Cecil Samuelson met Roberts at a Washington, D.C., reception for Griffith and invited him to speak.

"Chief Justice Roberts mentioned he had been to BYU previously and held our university and law school in high regard," Samuelson said. "I simply invited him to come again, and our people on both sides worked out the arrangements from there."

The timing was serendipitous.

Two days after Samuelson invited Roberts, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement. Less than three weeks later, President Bush nominated Roberts to replace her.

Two months after that, Bush nominated Roberts to replace deceased Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Each forum speaker must be approved by the university forum committee, the academic vice president's council, the president's council, the commissioner of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the executive committee of the Board of Trustees and the board.

"A nomination can be stopped at any of those levels," Naumann said.

The committee generally avoids active politicians and, Naumann said, "too many controversial political figures."

Administrators want forums to enrich the university's liberal arts curriculum and confront students with difficult issues.

"There's an interest on the committee to challenge students," Naumann said. "They really need to learn to think for themselves. We have a tendency to coddle them too much at BYU, and they're going to find it different in the real world. We'd rather confront those issues where they can discuss them in a positive light in their classes."

Long-time liberal White House correspondent Helen Thomas controversially questioned Bush and the Iraq War at a BYU forum in 2003, but she also drew a crowd of more than 4,600, Naumann said.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com