Aldous Huxley once said, “So long as men worship the Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly rise and make them miserable.” Huxley’s statement clarifies nicely the debate surrounding this year’s commencement speaker.
When I first got word of Ruth Simmons as the speaker, I was confused. Who is this? Another university president speaking to us. Why? Unlike most GW students, I do not wish to see someone in power speak simply because of their power. Instead, I want to hear someone who has positively contributed to improving the world. After my initial confusion over Simmons, I became content, as she fits my criteria for a graduation speaker.
She has been instrumental in opening the doors of universities to disadvantaged youth, which she described as “a matter of national salvation.” She has broken barriers by becoming the first African-American President of an Ivy League school. And she established the first engineering program at a woman’s university at Smith College.
Prior to announcement of the speaker, the rumor circulating campus was that it would be Dick Cheney. After Simmons was chosen, students exclaimed, “I’d rather have Dick Cheney even if I don’t like him.” Why? What is it with this obsession with power that so many GW students, and others, seem to have? Simply because Cheney is vice president makes him a worthy speaker? I find Cheney to be one of the most frightening men in America, if not the world. Why would I want him to speak at GW? Give me the head of a youth group in D.C., a labor organizer or a poorly paid schoolteacher. Give me someone, be they nameless to the public, who works tirelessly without recognition for social change. Don’t give me power simply because of power. And in the context of GW’s commencement speaker, if I have to choose between the first African-American president of an Ivy League school who helped draft university affirmative action policies or a man who declared an unending war on the world, give me the former.