When the University announced neurosurgeon Ben Carson as the 2012 commencement speaker in the spring, nearly 500 professors, students and alumni signed a letter in which they expressed concerns over the fact that Carson doesn’t believe in evolution.
While those who signed the letter weren’t calling for the University to reverse their commencement speaker decision, they called on the Emory community “to also consider the enormous positive impact of science on our lives and how that science rests squarely on the shoulders of evolution,” according to the letter.
This controversy over Carson’s views is one instance among several in the past few decades where the selection of the commencement’s speaker has sparked debate and discussion on Emory’s campus, especially in regard to finding a “big name” speaker versus lesser-known individuals who have made a major impact in the world.
When the University began its search for a 2013 commencement speaker in the spring, the initial list of possibilities ranged from President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to anti-malaria pioneer Ray Chambers and owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft.
Emory will announce its final selection of a commencement speaker in the next few months. University President James W. Wagner said Emory’s reason for hosting an external commencement speaker on campus each year – as opposed to the school’s president giving the speech, which is the procedure at other colleges – is simply a matter of tradition and “gives us an opportunity to honor somebody.”
The University has brought figures such as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and physician and global health advocate Paul Farmer to campus in the past decade.
Emory doesn’t pay its annual speaker, Wagner said, but does award him or her with an honorary degree.
Although the commencement speech itself lasts for minutes, the process by which the University selects a speaker is one that begins a year before and sheds light on controversies that have surrounded some of the University’s previous final choices.
A List of Possibilities
Student involvement is a central component of the commencement speaker selection process.
A committee consisting of about 25 juniors – who will be graduating in May of the following year – convenes to establish a list of possibilities.
“I think the best part about it is having juniors, and then seniors, on the committee,” said College senior Kiefer Hock, a member of this year’s committee. “We really give our voice and serve as representatives of the senior class because it would obviously be hard to involve [the entire] senior class in the decision process.”
When College senior and College Council Budget Chair Cassandra Novick received an email informing her that she had been selected for the committee early last spring, she wasn’t sure exactly how she was chosen.
She could tell, though, that the student advisory committee consisted of student leaders as well as a diverse representation of campus organizations.
Vice President and Deputy to the President Gary Hauk leads the search each year and clarified that he selects students after requesting recommendations from colleagues and students in the College class a year ahead, among others. He wrote in an email to the Wheel that he convenes the committee at Wagner’s request, and the committee meets several times during the course of the spring semester.
Wagner said at some other schools, students have no involvement in the decision.
“Emory tries to be a little more democratic in the nominating process,” Wagner said.
At the first meeting, the students usually “brainstorm a list of all potential or desired speakers, ranging from the highly unlikely but totally well-known, [such as] Bono, to the very possible but less celebrity-like, [like] Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola,” Hauk wrote.
This committee met twice in the spring to develop the list, according to Novick and Hock.
Students were required to do some research on potential speakers before the first meeting, Novick said, adding that the committee makes an effort to include a combination of “bigger names” in addition to “lesser-known people” who can still provide a unique and interesting message to the graduating class.
“There was a good combination of the two and some thoughtful insight was put into it from all sides,” Novick said.
Hock agreed, noting that the committee desired “a more globally-minded speaker but also someone who is very articulate and can actually identify with the students here at Emory.”
Narrowing Down the Options
The students divided this year’s list into categories such as U.S. political figures, religious leaders, writers, activists and Hollywood celebrities and artists.
Once the list is complete each spring, Hauk wrote, he asks committee members to informally poll their classmates about the contenders. At the second meeting, the list is narrowed down to about 20 possibilities. And, Hauk explained, “after a few weeks of more polling and pondering,” the committee usually congregates once again to rank-order a list of 10 potential speakers to present to Wagner.
Novick said that she has mixed feelings about the process. While the committee members, as student leaders, have many student contacts whom they can effectively contact for input, she finds it “unfortunate” that it’s up to each individual committee member to reach out to other students only if they choose to do so.
“I guess it could be more transparent,” she said. “It’s expected for each person to reach out to their own individual people.”
Novick added that the transition away from LearnLink conferences has made it more difficult to obtain student feedback.
The President’s Office usually begins the process of inviting different speakers for the following year to campus in late spring or early summer, according to Hauk. If the University has what Hauk described as “personal contacts” with one or more of the individuals on the list, those potential speakers might be invited first, even if they are not the top choice.
“The rank order is meant to be advisory, not hard and fast,” Hauk said. “We then pursue all leads until we secure a confirmation.”
The committee hasn’t met again this semester, but Hauk has kept them updated on the search process thus far.
Hock, too, as a committee member, said he feels there are some aspects – such as transparency in the nomination process – that he would change about the process.
Still, he said, he appreciates the involvement students have in the nominations.
“It’s pretty much up to us to pick who we want and then from there it’s up to the administration,” Hock said. “I think in that regard it’s been very worthwhile. It gives us a lot of ownership in the selection process.”
Once a speaker accepts Emory’s invitation to speak at commencement, there are “standard logistical steps” the University must follow, such as paying for transportation for the speaker to travel to campus.
However, if a speaker rejects an offer to speak, Wagner and Hauk return to the list.
“It makes me nervous when we get well into the winter,” Wagner said. “I’m most happy when we get someone by September or October.”
Wagner added that the University has established a practice where it doesn’t invite politicians – with the exception of the U.S. President – who can continue to run for office, “just so there’s no temptation to turn the event into a campaigning committee.”
There have been some last-minute cancellations in the past, and well-known faculty members have had to take their place, according to Wagner.
When Speaker Selection Raises Questions
When the University announced in fall 2006 that Wagner himself was going to address the Class of 2007 – breaking from the University’s tradition of choosing an external speaker – he faced considerable backlash from students.
“I offered to present the commencement address because that was the class I entered with [in 2003],” Wagner said. “It would’ve been an experiment: what would it have meant to break from tradition?”
Students started an online petition, requesting that administrators and the committee reverse their decision. Wagner considered and ultimately agreed to do so.
“Frankly, I’m not convinced that having a commencement speaker the way Emory does it is all that important,” Hauk said, emphasizing that many colleges like Cornell University have the university president deliver the address. “Even the best of speakers can be too long, too full of clichÃ©s, too forgettable. Most commencement addresses are unmemorable in themselves.”
Hauk said the choice of a commencement speaker is “vexing for a lot of reasons,” particularly because “not everyone will care for a particular speaker,” even if a majority of the graduating class might.
“Few people of any celebrity will be universally appealing,” Hauk wrote. “Even the Dalai Lama in  and Desmond Tutu in 1988 had their detractors.”
The question of whether the University should strive for “big names” rather than less-known individuals who might deliver a more unique or engaging speech has arisen in the past.
Regardless, a commencement speaker should “have some name recognition, even if not a household name,” Hauk wrote.
When former Senator George Mitchell was announced as the graduation speaker in 2000 shortly after he aided in efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland, some students expressed disapproval because they did not immediately recognize his name.
And when Mikhail Gorbachev was selected in 1992, some students expressed concerns that the amount of required security and focus on Gorbachev himself would overshadow their graduation.
Hock said the committee’s focus has been on an individual who can identify with the greatest number of students graduating in the spring.
Novick said that the student committee “equally disagrees” about having a big-name speaker versus a speaker who will give a great speech, regardless of how well-known they are.
“When things were narrowed down, we stopped assessing the big names and started assessing the overall character of the person in terms of what he or she would provide to Emory and how they would relate to the graduating class,” Novick said.
As for the commencement speaker for the Class of 2013, an invitation has been sent out, and the office of the possible speaker has responded that they received the invitation. Wagner said the University hopes to hear back in the next month.
– By Jordan Friedman
Photo Courtesy of Emory Photo/Video
Updated (12/7 at 5:46 p.m.): The original version of this story said in a quote that the Dalai Lama spoke at Emory’s commencement ceremony in 1996. The year should have read 1998.