WEB EXCLUSIVE: Students have mixed reactions to speaker

Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons will keynote GW’s Commencement May 19 on the Ellipse, GW announced Monday. Simmons became the first black president of an Ivy League school when she took over at Brown University last year.

Simmons, a child of Texas sharecroppers and great-great granddaughter of slaves, wrote a 1993 report that became the model for affirmative action plans at campuses across the country.

Simmons served as president of Smith College from 1995 to 2001 and is noted for establishing the first-ever engineering program at an all-women’s college.

Simmons will also speak at Washington University’s Commencement the week before on May 10.

While some students said they were disappointed not to get a well-known political figure, officials said Simmons is a good choice for a speaker because she provides a positive image for students and focuses on education.

University Marshal Jill Kasle said after Sept. 11 the University wanted Simmons because she would demonstrate to students that education is “eternal.”

“The world will have to come to an end before education comes to an end,” Kasle said.

Director of Media Relations Gretchen King said Simmons is “an incredible person,” and she is “thrilled” she is coming because Simmons will provide an inspirational image for graduating seniors to look at.

But many students said they did not understand why Simmons would be GW’s top choice for a speaker.

“It seems kind of random,” sophomore Chris Gaston said. “To be in Washington and have the president of Brown (speak) seems a little weird.”

“Manouch is more well known on campus,” said junior Josh Rothstein.

Some other students said Simmons is a great choice because she will bring a new type of speaker to Commencement.

Junior Marina Lacerda said having the first black president of an Ivy League university would be something new and exciting.

Sophomore Delaina Price said she thinks Simmons will be more interesting than last year’s speakers, which included author Herman Wouk as the keynote and singer Tony Bennet, who received an honorary degree.

“I think (Simmons) is an excellent choice,” Price said.” I would rather she speak at my Commencement than someone like Tony Bennet.”

Although details about her speech are not yet available, Simmons will likely discuss trends in education.

In an interview conducted between Simmons and the Brown student newspaper three days after she was sworn in as Brown’s 18th president, Simmons said she is disappointed to see that schools have become “amassers of wealth” and “that’s not what the academy is supposed to be about.”

Simmons also said there is “nothing special” about her “that should make me think that people should be knocking on my door.”

But she said she knows she is a qualified individual.

“I’m more than pretty good at what I do,” Simmons said. “I’m passionate about what I think, and about what I believe in, and I’m certainly passionate about education.”

Although House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi from California, among others, will speak at Georgetown University’s graduation, Kasle said most well-known politicians do not speak at D.C. schools because of a lack publicity. She said The Washington Post probably would not give such an event as much coverage as local newspapers in other cities.

Kasle said her office has tracked Bill Clinton’s commencement speeches for the past eight years, and he spoke at schools outside the District. Last year Clinton spoke to Manhattan’s Professional Performing Arts School, after 17-year-old Sophia Velez wrote him a letter inviting him, according to the New York Daily News. He also spoke at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. and Eastern Michigan University in 2000

“It’s not like (a politician) can just drop over for a barbeque,” Kasle said.

This year President George W. Bush will speak at Ohio State University. Students can also claim credit for that coup, after Bush responded to their invitation, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

King said GW wanted to announce the speaker Friday but Simmons was out of town for the weekend and had to read over the press release before it was released to the public. King said Simmons read the press release this morning and “made no changes.”

Four people will also receive honorary degrees:

o Darrell Green, the Washington Redskins’ seven-time All Pro defensive back and two-time Super Bowl champion,
o Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
o Lois Green Schwoerer, award-winning author and scholar of early modern England.
o John. D. Zeglis, chairman and chief executive officer of AT & T Wireless Services, who served on GW’s board of trustees from 1995 to last year.

Simmons graduated summa cum laude at the all-black Dillard University and earned her master’s and doctorate in romance languages and literature from Harvard University. She wrote a 1998 autobiographical essay about her childhood experiences raised as the 12th child of a sharecropping family in a small East Texas town.

King said Commencement is “locked” for the Ellipse on May 19 at 10 a.m., but if the Secret Service or Park Services needs the space GW also booked the MCI Center for 12 p.m. the same day.

Kasle said this is the first year GW booked the MCI Center the same time it booked the Ellipse because after Sept. 11 there is the threat of terrorism any time.

–Russ Rizzo contributed to this report.

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