Salman Rushdie, renowned author and University Distinguished Professor, will deliver the keynote address to Emory University’s Class of 2015 at this year’s Commencement ceremony on May 11.
College Dean Robin Forman made the announcement during Rushdie’s final public lecture as an Emory faculty member at Glenn Memorial Auditorium on Sunday evening. Rushdie was named distinguished writer in residence in the Department of English at Emory in 2006 and will conclude his position with Emory this year before joining the faculty at New York University next year.
Rushdie is regarded as one of the greatest modern writers, achieving literary eminence with his second novel, Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981. Rushdie achieved global recognition after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, when former Iranian political and religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s death in 1989.
Maintaining the tradition to award the Commencement speaker with an honorary degree, the University will award Rushdie an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
This year, the announcement that Rushdie was chosen as Commencement speaker came as a surprise to many. Vice President and Deputy to the President Gary Hauk confirmed that Rushdie was not on the original list of choices.
Each spring, Hauk forms a committee of around 20 third-year students to begin the process of choosing the next year’s Commencement speaker. Deans and faculty members that interact with students daily suggest juniors that they feel are actively involved on campus and respected by their peers, according to Hauk.
The committee then develops a list of eight to 10 unranked choices. According to Hauk, this list typically includes anyone from Supreme Court justices to comedians and musicians, to renowned politicians and world figures. The committee looks for individuals who exemplify Emory’s vision statement, have a bit of name recognition and are known to speak eloquently and interestingly, Hauk said.
“I can say that what we do is start very early, right after Commencement, and right after the list is prepared by the committee and submitted to the President, to reach out to some of the people who are on the list,” Hauk said. “When we run up against certain obstacles or brick walls, we often have to go to this pool of honorary degree candidates.”
According to Goizueta Business School senior and committee member Jessica Simon, the Commencement committee had not been consulted on the decision to choose Rushdie.
Simon said she is curious to know when the decision to ask Rushdie was made and wishes the committee had been informed of the decision or that a student body vote had been held before the announcement was made.
“We had talked to people and taken down ideas and interest on who the possible speaker could be,” Simon said. “With that being said, Salman Rushdie is a very eloquent speaker. I know people really enjoy his events. I would not say I am upset about it; I was just very genuinely surprised.”
Hauk said that while the administration tries to take the committee’s preferences into account, a lot of the time conflicts due to scheduling prohibit the University from obtaining these speakers.
“I honestly have to say we have tried diligently to recruit [the committee’s] choices; we have not always been successful,” Hauk said. “In fact, we have only been successful probably two times in the last eight or nine years.”
Committee members also commented on the difficult nature of scheduling.
“Having to conform to the volatile nature of the schedules of people who are that stature in society is difficult,” Simon said. “You have to go through the list and realize they may be available later, but you can’t wait until the last minute to secure someone. Timing is really important so while it may seem easy, it is a way more arduous process than people expect it to be.”
College senior Joy Annette Atsegbua said she was also surprised to learn about the selection after serving on the committee. However, Atsegbua said she thought the selection is fitting.
“I think one of the reasons he was chosen was … they announced this was his last year as a faculty member, and he is getting an honorary degree,” Atsegbua said. “It’s timely and makes sense with what has been happening around the world in the last few months.”
Hauk said he is looking forward to Rushdie’s keynote address, adding that the eloquence and articulateness with which Rushdie presents compelling ideas makes him an appropriate choice.
“I have no doubt, having heard him speak many times, that he will be a passionate, humorous and very articulate keynote speaker for our graduates,” Hauk said. “He has a commanding intelligence, but full of wit, full of modern observations and very engaging on every level.”
With the goal of reaching out to more students in mind, Hauk said the process for choosing a speaker is going to change in the coming years. He said he has been working with the Division of Campus Life’s Interactive Communications Developer Matt Cone to develop a pitch through Emory Bubble. This would create a kind of social media opportunity for this year’s junior class, according to Hauk.
“My hunch is that I am actually hearing the opinions of about 30 or 40 people, maybe 50, maybe 100, but there are 1,350 students in the class,” Hauk said. “This is a way for all 1,350, presumably, to have at least some voice.”
College senior Christopher Rolling agreed that the decision made sense based on current events.
“I do think his speech will be memorable,” Rolling said. “Rushdie is timely given our world’s ongoing discussion about free speech.”
Both Atsegbua and Simon said that they wanted a speaker who would be memorable.
“As much as everyone is eager to be done, Commencement is still that time that people do slow down and just take in the moment,” Atsegbua said. “You want someone who can give a speech that lasts in your memory. Not just because it is your graduation, but also because it was something important that had to be said or encouraging.”
Simon said she wanted a speaker that was not polarizing so that the choice would not upset anybody.
“I was way into the Tina Fey, Amy Poehler route,” Simon said.
College senior Ellen Chiang agreed with this sentiment. Chiang said that Ellen DeGeneres is her ideal speaker.
“It would be great to increase the proportion of female Commencement speakers,” Chiang said. “I looked online, and there have only been a few in over a decade, which is really disappointing and not what I expected.”
During his nine-year tenure at Emory, Rushdie has given various public lectures and classroom discussions. Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) also houses the author’s archives.
This year marks the University’s 170th Commencement. More than 15,000 attendees are expected to attend the ceremony on May 11 on the Quadrangle.In addition to Rushdie, Emory’s first Provost, Chancellor and Dean of what became the Laney Graduate School Billy Frye will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree; former Atlanta Mayor Chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Civil and Human Rights Shirley Franklin will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and R. Randall Rollins, chairman of the Board of Directors for Rollins, Inc., will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane letters degree.
This article was updated at 12:17 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 23 to change “150,000 attendees” in the last paragraph to the correct number, or “15,000 attendees.”