Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey will deliver the keynote address and receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree at this year’s commencement ceremony May 8.
The renowned poet has taught at Emory for 15 years and currently directs the Creative Writing Program. She served two consecutive terms as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012-14 and was awarded the Academy of American Poets Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement in 2016.
Trethewey authored four award-winning poetry collections, most notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006), which was inspired both by her move to Atlanta and her Southern family roots. A Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing, she will leave Emory to join Northwestern University’s (Ill.) faculty for the start of the 2017-18 academic year.
University President Claire E. Sterk chose the commencement speaker from a list of pre-approved honorary degree candidates, according to Vice President and Senior Adviser to the University President Gary Hauk. The task of selecting the commencement speaker has historically rested with the University president, Hauk said.
“Sterk turned to someone who is very distinguished and well-known in the Emory community [to speak at commencement],” Hauk said.
Sterk did not respond to request for comment.
The Honorary Degrees Committee of the University Senate typically receives approximately 100 nominations from the Emory community for honorary degree candidates, which it whittles down to a list of six, according to Hauk. From that pool, the University president chooses up to four nominees to award honorary degrees; one of those honorary degree recipients is also selected to speak at commencement, Hauk said.
Two students sat on this year’s 20-person committee alongside members of staff, faculty and administration. They were Graduate Student Government Association (GSGA) President and Goizueta Business School graduate student Jared Greenbaum and Student Government Association (SGA) President and College senior Max Zoberman.
“Professor Trethewey is a remarkable talent and scholar who has made enormous contributions both to the art of poetry and to the Emory community,” Zoberman said. “I can’t think of many people I would want to hear from more as I move into the next chapter nor a better way to celebrate a person who has given part of herself to this institution.”
College senior Sarah Witte disagreed, saying she hoped for a speaker who was not Emory-affiliated.
“I was excited to hear from someone well-known that you wouldn’t normally get to see on a regular basis,” Witte said. “The fact that they chose someone who is not only affiliated with Emory University but is also leaving for another University considered to be Emory’s competition is disappointing.”
Students previously played a greater role in the commencement speaker selection process. The Student Selection Committee, convened annually by Hauk from 2006-2010, was responsible for generating a list of approximately 12 potential commencement speakers. It was disbanded after its choices proved too unrealistic, Hauk said.
“Quite often, [student’s nominations] were A-list celebrities or federal political figures,” Hauk said. “Rarely were we able to get someone on the list, so we felt that we were doing a disservice to the students by suggesting we would be able to get their first, second or 12th choice and raising expectations that couldn’t be satisfied.”
Honorary degree candidates are evaluated on criteria including their achievements in higher education, the arts, private or public service and their relationship to Emory, according to the honorary degrees website. This year’s other honorary degree recipients include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, author Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and epidemiologist Claes Tingvall.
Recent commencement speakers include Georgia State Rep. John Lewis in 2014, former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove in 2013 and neurosurgeon and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson in 2012.
Joshua Lee and Michelle Lou contributed reporting.