The ideal commencement speech resonates with members of the graduating class through words of wisdom that will guide them for years post-graduation. Think Steve Jobs at Stanford University, Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University and J.K. Rowling at Harvard University. And in order for there to be an ideal speech, there must be an ideal speaker, chosen via an ideal process. When it comes to selecting commencement speakers, we feel that the speaker who can satisfy the greatest number of graduating students ought to be selected. At least, that is how the process should be driven.
This year, the selection committee procured renowned epidemiologist Dr. William Foege. While we do not doubt his legacy nor his ability to give a satisfying speech, and we are honored to have Foege as our commencement speaker, we believe that the process that led to his selection does not include enough student input given the significance the speech holds to many graduating seniors.
We do not take issue with Foege himself as our commencement speaker, and we don’t know that a better selection process would not have chosen him regardless. But our contention is about the principles behind the selection process.
Each spring, about 20 to 30 Emory juniors are nominated by deans and faculty members to form the selection committee. The committee convenes several times over the semester, constructs a broad list of favorable speakers and, through a series of informal polls completed by each committee member, the list is narrowed down to roughly 10 potential speakers. After this stage, it is almost entirely up to the administration to finish the selection process.
The process so far does not have any blatant problems, but the University has only successfully recruited somebody from this list about twice in the past nine or 10 years, and the past three speakers have had direct institutional ties. The problem is not only the lack of widespread student involvement in the final stage, it is also that the current amount of student involvement does not appear capable of generating a realistic list of commencement speaker candidates.
Last year, we made suggestions to improve the selection process. In response to Vice President and Deputy to the President Gary Hauk’s statement that the University would look to utilize the Emory Bubble to solicit more student opinion on the commencement speaker, we said that the University should instead use more popular channels like Facebook and email surveys — avenues that students more commonly use rather than the Bubble or OrgSync which are largely ignored by most students. In addition, we suggested that the selection process begin more than a year in advance and that personal connections of students and faculty be given stronger consideration. We can only repeat these suggestions while adding that the committee ought to be doubled to around 40 members.
Why are we so adamant that the process change? It is not just because we want to tell our friends how famous our commencement speaker is. It is because every graduating class at Emory deserves to be excited about their commencement speaker. And the only way to guarantee that is to broaden participation in the selection process.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board.