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 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 May 10.
While some students said they were disappointed not to get a well-known political figure, officials said Simmons is a good choice as a speaker because she focuses on education.
“I thought that GW has, with some notable exceptions in the last few years . been heavily tilted toward political figures, and I thought it would be refreshing to have an academic to get us back to our core mission,” GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said.
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.
Many seniors said they did not understand why Simmons would be GW’s top choice.
“To have your speaker be the president of another university isn’t that interesting,” Katie Mc Mahon said. “I’m curious to see who backed out.”
“I’m not very impressed,” Jeff Ackley said.
Other seniors said Simmons is a great choice.
Senior Sabrina Calice said this year’s Commencement should be more exciting than last year’s, which featured author Herman Wouk and singer Tony Bennett.
“At least it’s not Tony Bennett,” Calice said.
In an interview conducted between Simmons and the Brown University student newspaper three days after she was sworn in as Brown’s 18th president, Simmons said she was 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,” adding that she is a qualified individual who is “passionate about education.”
Although House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), among others, will speak at Georgetown University’s graduation, Kasle said most well-known politicians do not speak at D.C. schools because D.C. media will not give the event as much coverage compared to newspapers in other cities.
Kasle said her office has tracked former President Bill Clinton’s commencement speeches for the past eight years and he only 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.
“It’s not like (a politician) can just drop over for a barbecue,” Kasle said.
This year President George W. Bush was invited to speak at Ohio State University by the student body, but his answer hasn’t been confirmed, said Elizabeth Conlisk, director of university relations.
Trachtenberg said although a student invitation is a nice “public relations ploy,” speakers have their own agendas when choosing where to speak.
Zack Beyer, Student Association vice president of judicial and legislative affairs, said the SA gives the administration suggestions every year without much success. He said Rudolph Guiliani, former mayor of New York City, and Tony Blair, prime minister of Great Britain, were suggested this year.
Beyer said he is not sure how much weight administrators give SA suggestions in their decisions about speakers.
“From the impression I get, they have a good idea of who they’re going to invite beforehand,” Beyer said.
Executive Director of University Events Jim Hess said after suggestions are received, a list of possible candidates is compiled and given to the board of trustees, who approves speakers before they are invited.
Four people will also receive honorary degrees:
Darrell Green, Washington Redskins’ seven-time All Pro defensive back and two-time Super Bowl champion
Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board
Lois Green Schwoerer, award-winning author and scholar of early modern England
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
Director of Media Relations Gretchen King said Commencement is “locked” for the Ellipse May 19 at 10 a.m., but if the Secret Service or Park Services closes the space, GW also booked the MCI Center for noon 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 at anytime.
Hess said extra security measures will be taken.
“We have to go through a bit more logistical red tape (this year),” Hess said. “But it’s something we’re prepared to deal with.”
-Russ Rizzo contributed to this report.