College announces speakers for commencement

By Emma WestRasmus

Chief Judge Michael J. Davis ’69, the first African-American federal judge in Minnesota and a Macalester alumnus, has been selected to be the main speaker for the commencement ceremony this May, and will be joined by student-speaker Westenley Alcenat ’10. “Judge Davis was asked to speak because his accomplishments are both extraordinarily impressive and inspirational,” President Brian Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail. “He is someone who believes that the more challenging the barriers and problems, the harder one should work to overcome them. That is a lesson I hope would resonate with all our students.”

Judge Davis received a B.A. in political science from Macalester in 1969. While at Mac, he was a teaching assistant in the political science department and was a member of the varsity basketball team. He graduated from the University of Minnesota law school where he was Director of the Municipal Court Misdemeanor Defense Clinic and Chair of the Black Law Students Association. After law school Davis studied at the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands.

Once back in Minnesota, Davis served as a criminal defense lawyer at the Neighborhood Justice Center in St. Paul, the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis and as an Assistant Public Defender in Hennepin County. He was appointed to the Fourth Judicial Municipal Court in 1983 and in 1984 he was elevated to the District Court bench where he served before being commissioned to a seat on the United states District Court for the District of Minnesota. His term expired in 2006 and he became the Chief Justice of the District of Minnesota, and the first African-American Federal Judge in Minnesota.

Judge Davis will be sharing the stage at commencement on May 15 with Westenley Alcenat ’10, who was selected as the senior speaker for the event. All seniors and faculty members were invited to submit nominations for seniors they would like to represent the graduating class by offering a speech at commencement, and the Senior Commencement Speaker Selection Committee narrowed it down to 10 candidates based on criteria including on-campus involvement and grade point averages. The finalists were invited to submit early drafts of the speech they would give at the ceremony, and from the initial 10 seniors, the committee narrowed it to 5 finalists and ultimately selected Alcenat.

According to Director of Academic Programs Ann Minnick, who serves on the Senior Commencement Speaker Selection Committee, Alcenat was chosen for his academic strength, involvement on campus and the themes he expressed in the draft of his speech.

“Wes has a compelling personal story, and the core pillars of what Macalester stands for were highlighted in his speech,” Minnick said. “I’m sure the speech will evolve between now and then, but it contains aspects of internationalism and service which will speak to students now and will be important for them as they move into their post-Macalester phase.”

With the 2010 commencement lineup finally solidified, the administration is now looking toward changing how commencement speakers are chosen in the future, and is weighing the idea of seeking alumni and local speakers. According to Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre, the administration is considering a new system for selecting commencement speakers in the future to avoid high speaking fares and the scheduling challenges of pinning down well-known national figures, as has happened in recent years.

“Though everyone would love to have Meryl Streep or Stephen Colbert, at this time in the college, it doesn’t seem to make sense to spend $100,000 for a speech when we could use people on campus or in the area to provide an inspiring message,” Hamre said.

Hamre said that a new possible system might involve emailing seniors in September with a pool of 10 potential candidates of distinguished alumni that seniors could vote on, though she noted that “in the end, the commencement speaker is the president’s decision.”

“This way speakers would know that students wanted them, and speaking at commencement would be a way to honor and recognize alumni and others who may not be movie stars of political figures,” Hamre said.

Rosenberg echoed Hamre’s desire to honor and include notable alumni in commencement activities, and noted that Judge Davis was one of those distinguished alumni that have a strong connection to Macalester.

“I am also a particular fan of having our own alumni-individuals who were shaped by, understand, and believe in Macalester-speak to students whenever possible,” Rosenberg said.