Law School names speaker

International Court of Justice Judge Thomas Buergenthal will keynote the Law School Commencement ceremony this May.

A Holocaust survivor, Buergenthal is known as a human rights activist. He is also the GW Law School’s Lobingier Professor Emeritus of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence.

He served from 1992 to 1993 as a member of the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, which investigates and reports human rights abuses in the country. He also served as chief judge, vice president and president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which enforces human rights, from 1979 to 1991.

“I can’t be more delighted,” said Thomas Morrison, associate dean for administrative affairs for the Law School. “I think Judge Buergenthal conveys to the students, in a time where almost everything you see on the front page of the paper is international news, exactly the kind of thing that we want.”

The Law School negotiated with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Secretary of the Treasury John Snow, who will speak at GW in March, before deciding on Buergenthal, according to Student Bar Association members. Morrison declined to comment on negotiations with other possible speakers.

The Law School will hold its graduation ceremony May 23 in the Smith Center.

Past speakers for the Law School’s Commencement have included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and former Attorney General Janet Reno.

Officials annually announce the University-wide Commencement speaker May 1, although an agreement between GW and the speaker can be made more than a year in advance, said University Marshal Jill Kasle, who coordinates the graduation ceremony for undergraduates.

When officials invited Bill Cosby to speak in 1997, they knew of the arrangement 18 months in advance.

“There’s certainly a scramble by all colleges and universities to get a Commencement speaker who will reflect well on their institution,” Kasle said. “The process is very complicated.”

The University gathers nominations from a variety of sources on a constant basis and then adds them to a rolling log of names that dates back several years. Anyone can submit nominations, and the school receives several dozen each year.

Students can contact the Office of University Events at (202) 994-5440 or with recommendations.

The Faculty Senate Committee on Honors and Academic Convocations, headed by physics professor Barry Berman, reviews the list and makes recommendations. Officials, citing rules of confidentiality, would not comment on who is currently under consideration.

After narrowing the list further, the Senate committee sends its suggestions to a panel of GW faculty and officials, including University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, to make the final decision.

To be Commencement speaker, an individual must be distinguished in his or her field, have a record of civic involvement or be affiliated with GW, Kasle said.

Last year, Virginia Governor and GW alumnus Mark Warner spoke. Other recent keynotes have included Brown University President Ruth Simmons, former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“We don’t want a politician every year. We look for a balance not only in the field the speakers come from but … for a balance between men and women, between young and old. We look for all sorts of things,” Kasle said.

Unlike some schools, GW does not hire speakers to address the graduating class, although the University covers travel and lodging expenses, which is taken out of the total Commencement budget. Officials declined to release figures.

“We never pay a Commencement speaker because receiving an honorary degree from GW is a big, big deal,” Kasle said. “If the person we’ve invited doesn’t understand that … then that person is not someone whom we want.”

Katie Guccione, vice president of special events for the Student Association, who represents student opinion on the selection committee, said students deserve a speaker with whom they can identify.

“I’m a junior here, so I try to think for myself, who are the people that I recognize from this list? Who do I think would assimilate most with the students at the University,” she said.

Officials said they are also concerned with name recognition when choosing a speaker.

“Obscurity in a Commencement speaker is undesirable because it tends to make the graduating seniors feel bad,” Kasle said. “They think, this is the best you could do?”

GW annually holds its Commencement ceremony on the National Ellipse for about $300,000 for equipment and services, Hess said. The space can be reserved up to a year in advance, and GW secures the contract each year the day after graduation.

The University also reserved the MCI Center shortly after last May’s Commencement, as it has done for several years, in case of weather or security concerns.

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