College Students Split on Political Graduation Speakers

Laura McMullen

When Wellesley College announced in March that MSNBC host and Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry would be the 2012 commencement speaker, students seemed pleased. Wellesley students have a strong voice in deciding who speaks at graduation, says Kate Leonard, 2012 class president of the women's liberal arts school near Boston.

A committee of students and one administrator first accept suggestions for speakers from all interested Wellesley students via E-mail, says Leonard. Then the committee compiles a list of all the suggestions, and discusses which speakers would best represent the school, and which would feasibly accept Wellesley's invitation. The speaker the committee chooses to invite is always someone initially suggested by at least one student, says Leonard.

Identifying a graduation speaker doesn't go this smoothly at all universities, and the student reaction to the speaker is not always so positive. Some University of North Carolina students are so opposed to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his handling of Occupy Wall Street that a few months after the university's September announcement of him as graduation speaker, they began organizing an alternative commencement.

On May 13, graduating UNC students have the choice to hear from Bloomberg, or attend the alternative ceremony, for which student organizers have secured three different commencement speakers.

"When Carolina invites an active political leader to serve as a commencement speaker, it is always possible that some members of the student body will not endorse that selection," said Ron Strauss, UNC executive vice provost and head of the commencement committee, in an E-mail to the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.

[Check out an interactive map of this year's graduation speakers.]

Politics are also at the root of student disapproval of the graduation speakers chosen this year by Adrian College in Michigan and Fordham University in New York. Many Adrian students are spreading a petition to stop '50s and '60s singer Pat Boone from speaking at commencement on April 29, citing Boone's "views of racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance" on their group's Facebook page.

When Fordham, a Jesuit school, announced in March that John Brennan, chief counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama, would speak at graduation, many seniors didn't sit well with the decision.

"As a member of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Bush-era, Brennan has been allegedly associated with prisoner abuse and torture for the 'War on Terror,'" states a Fordham student petition for a new speaker.

When University of Pennsylvania announced social activist and education reformer Geoffrey Canada as this year's commencement speaker, many seniors reacted negatively not because of Canada's political views, but because they hadn't heard of him.

[Learn why pre-law students are less interested in political careers.]

With past Penn graduation speakers such as Denzel Washington and Bloomberg, expectations were high, says Penn senior Brian Goldman, and many students had to search research Canada's name online to learn more about him.

Although disappointed about the speaker decision at first, Goldman says, "Geoffrey Canada may not have as high of a name recognition value, but he certainly has a breadth of experience and tremendous accolades, and a successful career in education reform."

Goldman's issue now is not with the speaker, but with the "bureaucratic" process by which Penn chose Canada.

"This was our one shot at graduation. The faculty gets to do it year in and year out," Goldman says. "They should have consulted with the student representatives more on the selection."

Goldman, who reported on the Canada decision for the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper, says that student representatives met once with the administration to decide on a speaker. At that meeting, the students and administrators discussed various names, none of which was Canada's.

That meeting was the only say that the student representatives had, so they were a bit shocked when none of their suggested names was chosen, Goldman says, unlike when Wellesley announced Harris-Perry, who was a student suggestion.

Though not satisfied with how little students got to say in Penn's decision to go with Canada, Goldman says he's excited for the speech.

"You have to give the school credit that they're not focused on bringing in a lightning-rod speaker so Penn's name can be printed in the news," Goldman says. "It seems like they really do focus on the value that the speaker brings; that just doesn't always mesh completely with what the students want."

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