And your speaker is…

By Brian Martucci

Each spring, as the college announces the selection of the keynote and student speakers at commencement, seniors meet the announcements with great surprise. Students usually have little idea of who potential speakers will be and almost no role in the selection process.

According to President Brian Rosenberg, only “two or three” students serving on a selection committee chaired by Provost Diane P. Michelfelder participate in the creation of a list of possible candidates for keynote speaker, which is then narrowed down and chosen by Rosenberg himself.

Years ago, students were allowed to vote on their keynote speaker before the Honorary Degree Committee assumed that responsibility, said Sandy Hill, Assistant to the President.

According to Hill, this was discontinued after students consistently seemed to prefer high-profile individuals who were usually too busy to attend-or even to reply to their invitations in a timely fashion. Often this would create a situation in which keynote speakers had to be selected and invited in a last-minute rush.

“Most colleges and universities use a variation of this process [to select commencement speakers],” Hill said. “We try to select speakers we feel are appropriate given Macalester’s mission and student body.”

He cited this year’s orator, former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, as an example of such an appropriate person. Brown, who was raised in nearby Hopkins and whose brother graduated from Macalester, is an eloquent, practiced newsman who gained fame and respect for his coverage of 9/11.

“I recently attended a lecture of his,” Hill said, “and he gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. He is the type of speaker [to select commencement speakers],” Hill said. “We try to select speakers we feel are appropriate given Macalester’s mission and student body.”

He cited this year’s orator, former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, as an example of such an appropriate person. Brown, who was raised in nearby Hopkins and whose brother graduated from Macalester, is an eloquent, practiced newsman who gained fame and respect for his coverage of 9/11.

“I recently attended a lecture of his,” Hill said, “and he gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. He is the type of speaker we’re looking for.”

Brian DeMarco ’09, already thinking ahead to his own graduation, disagreed with Hill’s logic.

“If I were able to vote on my own graduation speaker, I wouldn’t want to choose someone who would bore me for an hour just because they’re famous. I’d want someone who could keep my attention,” he said.

Asked if he would mind sitting through Brown’s commencement address, DeMarco said, “I have no idea. I don’t know who Aaron Brown is.”

Aaron Mendelson ’09 agreed. “I wouldn’t mind having Aaron Brown as my commencement speaker—at least he’s been on TV—but students should probably have some input in the decision, especially for the student speaker,” he said.

Until this year, the college’s Honorary Degree Committee, composed of members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, and students, controlled the entire keynote speaker selection process.

That committee has been dissolved and replaced by the on-campus Provost-chaired committee, which is responsible for creating a broad selection of possible keynote speakers for commencement. The President removes some names from this list and sends the more manageable document first to the college’s faculty and second to the Board of Trustees for a confirmation vote.

“Once they’ve been approved,” Rosenberg said, “I decide when and to whom to issue the invitations in any given year.”

According to Rosenberg, the committee has already begun the selection process for next year’s graduation speaker.

The college relies only slightly more on graduating seniors to select the Senior Address speaker at commencement, according to Dean of Academic Programs Ellen Guyer, who oversees this process.

Guyer solicits nominations for potential speakers via e-mail from both seniors and faculty. A committee comprised of two students, two faculty members, Dean of Students Laurie Hamre and Guyer, then debates the academic and extracurricular credentials of nominees. All other students whose GPAs exceed 3.8 are also considered.

This selection committee whittles down the list of nominees to somewhere between 10 and 15—this year there were 14, according to Guyer—and then formally invites this group to apply for the honor.

“This group is sent a letter inviting them to submit a resume highlighting their involvement in Macalester activities as well as a letter telling us what they might say in their speech and why they believe they should be given this honor,” she said.

The committee reviews these documents and then selects an even smaller group to be interviewed; the single student commencement speaker is selected from these lucky few.

Although the bulk of the process occurs behind closed doors, Guyer discounted the possibility of giving graduating seniors more of a say in the selection of their commencement speaker. Although it is not the only factor taken into account, academic excellence is the primary criteria for serious candidates.

“[Giving the Senior Address at commencement] is considered first and foremost an academic honor,” she said, suggesting that student and faculty nominations are given the consideration primarily when they include students who have excelled during their time here.

At least one graduating senior was apathetic about having a vote in the selection of graduation speakers.

“As long as the administration picks someone interesting, I really don’t have a problem with it. They’re going to have to sit through that speech with the rest of us, so they have no incentive to choose a bad speaker,” Spencer Edelman ’06 said. “Besides, graduation is graduation—we’ll sit through it and get our diplomas, but I’m looking forward more to partying during Senior Week than to the ceremony itself.”

According to Hill, the college used to invite all recipients of its honorary degrees—as many as three per year—to speak at commencement. This practice was discontinued—and the selection of keynote speakers and recipients of honorary degrees made independent of one another—because “those worthy of receiving honorary degrees were not always appropriate commencement speakers,” Hill said.