Keynote speaker selection draws ire from faculty, graduating seniors

The news that University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg will be this year’s Commencement keynote speaker drew mostly criticism yesterday from students, parents and faculty members.

Trachtenberg has spoken at every Commencement in his 19-year tenure as president in a charge to the graduating class, but this will be the first time he will be the headlining speaker. Trachtenberg will be stepping down as president this summer and plans to stay as a professor of public policy.

“Some will be thrilled and some will be less thrilled,” Trachtenberg said. “Listen, there are some people coming to Commencement – like you going to the funeral of someone you didn’t like just to make sure they really died.

“There are going to be people coming to this Commencement just to make sure I’m really leaving,” he said. He added that any talk of protests or outrage is “nonsense.”

Many students have criticized the decision to have the outgoing University president headline the graduation event.

“I was so excited … because we’ve had such great speakers in the past, but now I’m just incredibly disappointed,” said senior Katie Zeleski, a biology major.

Zeleski, like many other seniors, told The Hatchet they would like to see a nationally prominent figure as their Commencement speaker, citing last year’s speakers former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush.

“I’ve heard (Trachtenberg) speak enough. I don’t want to hear him speak again,” senior Salar Samii said.

Some students have turned to the Internet to voice their opinion, many using networking groups on Web sites such as Facebook.com. Such groups include a “Petition Against Stephen Joel Trachtenberg as Commencement Speaker,” “GW Students Against Trachtenberg as the Keynote Commencement Speaker” and “Turn Your Back on Trachtenberg,” which senior Alex Hoover created.

Hoover started the group out of “general outrage,” he said. Although Hoover said he respects what Trachtenberg has done during his term at GW, his group is calling for graduates to turn their back during his speech.

A sign in the entrance to Ivory Tower directed students to a petition posted on a door to a room on the seventh floor.

Robert Chernak, senior vice president of student and academic support services, who came to GW with Trachtenberg in 1988 from the University of Hartford, said he thought the decision was fitting.

“President Trachtenberg is graduating this year also, so why should he not be the graduation speaker?” he wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

“I would hope that graduating students, parents and faculty keep an open mind and not cast aside without due consideration the merits of this honor,” he added.

Some students said, however, that the outgoing president’s address would be an appropriate way to end his tenure.

“I think Trachtenberg has done a lot of good things and some questionable things, but at the end of the year he deserves to run the show,” senior Daniel Balke said.

Sandy Sobelman, the mother of senior Scott Sobelman, emphasized her respect for Trachtenberg but said compared to previous years’ speakers, she was expecting a “big name.”

“I am somewhat disappointed for my son, myself and the traveling members who are coming to Commencement,” Sobelman said.

Reaction from faculty members who have often been critical of Trachtenberg was mixed.

“I think it’s a bit presumptuous to put Trachtenberg as the headliner, but at least he’s an academic person,” said William Griffith, chair of the philosophy department. “I think it represents an unwarranted presumption that the students want to hear him.”

Economics professor Anthony Yezer said he looks forward to hearing Trachtenberg’s Commencement address.

“As a faculty member, I’ll be interested in hearing what he has to say after 19 years,” he said. “I would get almost nothing out of listening to another politician.”

Other University officials defended Trachtenberg as the keynote speaker.

“I think President Trachtenberg has earned the right to be the Commencement speaker and I hope the graduating class will give him the same respect as any other Commencement speaker,” said Tracy Schario, director of Media Relations.

“He’s personally responsible for a lot of their University experience and I would think that they would want to honor him and be proud that he’s the University Commencement speaker this year.”

-David Ceasar, Jennifer Easton, Hadas Gold, Elise Kigner, Andrew Ramonas and Sean Redding contributed to this report.

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