In recent years, GW has hosted such notable Commencement speakers as then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and even former Republican senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole. Unlike past ceremonies, this year’s Commencement will not feature a keynote speaker but will instead include short speeches from seven recipients of honorary degrees. Among these, singer Tony Bennett seems to be the best known. Even so, the change in the structure of the program belies GW’s inability to attract a headliner for the 2001 Commencement ceremony.
This year’s speakers will be Bennett, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, director of the National Science Foundation Rita Colwell, Southeastern University President Charlene Drew Jarvis, inventor of the asthma inhaler H. R. Shepherd and president of the D.C. Board of Trade John R. Tydings.
All these individuals are standouts in their particular fields, but none has that certain cachet of legitimacy one expects of a Commencement speaker. Just last year, GW hosted Albright, congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, World Bank President James Wolfensohn and prize-winning Oxford University historian Sir Martin Gilbert. Against that backdrop, this year’s lineup pales in comparison.
GW repeatedly touts its location in D.C. as an asset, citing its proximity to the seat of world political power and the potential for students to become involved in Washington life. Administrators curiously seem to have neglected this connection in selecting this year’s speakers. The only rationale they offer for the disappointing lineup is that GW has hosted the ceremony without a keynote speaker before.
We have no Dole, no Albright, no Clinton, no John Lewis. GW has the connections and the potential to attract a political luminary of that caliber: Secretary of State Colin Powell is a GW alumnus, and with Republicans in the White House, plenty of out-of-work Democrats are available for a speaking engagement, including the former president and vice president. After the long line of notable guests at the Media and Public Affairs building opening – Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, Bob Schieffer and Ted Leonsis – the Commencement program seems like an afterthought.
Scheduling does not always work out, and more notable universities sometimes eclipse GW in the scramble for speakers. Still, administrators should have done better to give the class of 2001 the Commencement speaker they deserve. There is still time to book a speaker of which graduates can be proud.