Transparency and trust: Student commencement speaker procedural reform

The Mac Weekly

by Alysha Alloway, Willa Childress, Robert Lin and Ollin Montes

Two weeks from now, the class of 2017 will graduate, with Connor Valenti ’17 featured as the class’s commencement speaker. This may come as recent news for many students. Although Valenti was chosen as the speaker several weeks ago, and the nomination process began in February, the student selection process has been carried out entirely in private, non-student run spaces.

This lack of transparency does not stop with the student selection committee — it also extends to those charged with disseminating important information within the campus community. Valenti was never interviewed by the Mac Weekly, even though a feature on the speaker has been written in years past. We reached out to Valenti while writing this op-ed, weaving acknowledgement of this honor and his perspective with our call for procedural change.

CV: Being chosen as the commencement speaker for the class of 2017 is a huge honor for me and I am grateful to the selection committee for all they have done to grant me this opportunity. However, that gratitude does not come paired with blinders. I, like many of my fellow classmates, recognize that the process that I and the other nominees for this position went through lacks a significant amount of clarity and transparency in relation to the rest of the senior class.

We ask: what should a commencement speech be? What should such a speech accomplish? Further, we question the extent to which we have been given spaces to ask these questions as a class in preparation for our graduation.

There are two kinds of speeches we might discuss the merits of, if given space for such a conversation. One of these prioritizes a universal message that is accessible to those who attend graduation: this speaker selection process would be focused on the speech itself and both its eloquence and meaningful appeal to common class values.

A different kind of commencement speaker selection process centers a well-known person or leader, and gives a speaker creative liberty to speak based on their contributions and representation of the class as an individual.

Macalester students should be able to have a conversation about whether we want to favor either of these aspects in the speech selection process. In either case, a crucial piece of each format is transparency, or the extent to which the class being represented interacts with their speaker. We argue that classes should either have access to speeches or knowledge of who speech finalists are. The current process provides neither: not even the nominees themselves knew who had been chosen as a finalist.

The current process is overseen by a committee of six individuals: two students, two staff and two faculty. Students submit nominations for whom they would like to speak at graduation. From there, they filter the initial nominees into a group invited to submit speeches. Of those who submitted speeches, the committee invites five students to present them. After hearing the speeches, the committee deliberates on who the student speaker will be.

CV: The first question most people ask me when they find out I’ve been chosen for the role is about how I was chosen for it. I think this demonstrates that the vast majority of the senior class possesses little to no idea about how their commencement speaker is selected. This is a problem. Ensuring that a commencement speaker fairly represents all parties involved (students, parents/family, faculty/staff) means that we need more openness in the process. It seems that the current process has created a level of distrust between members of the student body and the selection process. I hope that opening this dialogue allows for continued discussion about what a commencement speaker means to us and how we can make the process of choosing one better for everyone involved.

Without transparency, students have no way of assessing the speech selection committee decision. As a consequence, distrust and criticism of the college emerge. It must be acknowledged that the class of 2017 is graduating on the heels of a divisive national political election, and in a unique period of time that poses a myriad of challenges to the health of liberal multicultural democracy in the United States and abroad. There were finalists who in the past delivered honest and controversial public speeches. Without a transparent process some students may wonder if certain finalists weren’t given equal weight because their speeches could produce discomfort and promote a political message. Many in the Class of 2017 hold these doubts. We should be given the opportunity to debate the merits of free speech and administrative editing of speeches, and each class should have the agency to pick a student speaker and message that fits each year’s political and social context.

Feelings of mistrust are amplified by the knowledge that students do not have a significant level of influence in the committee structure. The committee, which is composed of two faculty and two staff members, in addition to two students, seems to be designed to favor administrative and staff interests over student voices. In a meeting one of our organizers had with Ann Minnick, she expressed that “the committee is looking for someone that represents the broader constituency of the community which includes the faculty, staff, families, board of trustees and students.” A public dialogue needs to take place about whether the committee ought to use this universal expectation for the student speaker. Arguably, the commencement speaker represents the broader constituency present at graduation, and the student speaker should therefore be someone who exclusively represents the class. However, there exists legitimate room for debate around this expectation.

We demand procedural reform. Possible solutions discussed thus far have included:

  • For the email sent out to the community to detail all the steps by which students are chosen (the call for speeches, invitation of speakers and the finalists phase with the committee deliberating on whose chosen).

  • For the senior class to be informed of who the final five finalists are.

  • For the committee to share at the beginning of the process the qualities they are looking for in student speakers and what the student speaker represents to the community.

  • For this information to be publicly and easily accessible to the student body and nominees.

  • For the community as a whole to conclusively decide whether we should prioritize a universal or representative speech or both, and what transparency in each of these processes looks like.

  • For a conversation about whether previous awards should be taken into consideration when choosing a student speaker (as of now,they are).

  • For the committee to be restructured with either a majority of students or an even number of students and staff.

Let’s have that discussion as a class and with our institution. Join us this afternoon Friday April, 28th from 3:30-4:30pm for a community forum in Smail Gallery to discuss strategies moving forward.