Clinton, Gates, Pelosi turn down offers to speak at Commencement

Updated Monday, April 16, 5:20 p.m.

Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Nancy Pelosi declined to speak at this year’s Commencement after the University invited them to participate in the University-wide event on the National Mall, GW officials said.

Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, and Gates, founder of Microsoft Corporation, turned down honorary degrees and speaking opportunities for unknown reasons, said GW Media Relations Director Tracy Schario. Clinton is slated to speak this spring at the University of Michigan and at Middlebury College in Vermont. Gates will speak at Harvard University’s graduation.

“Maybe their calendars were really booked up. It’s really hard to say,” Schario said Sunday. She declined to say which other people were invited to participate in the ceremony.

She explained that some invited dignitaries do not plan to attend GW’s Commencement exercises because of prior commitments and for undisclosed personal reasons. Some choose not to participate because they want an “honorarium,” or speaker’s fee, and the University never compensates graduation speakers and honorary degree recipients, Schario said.

She added that University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg will not receive any extra money for being the keynote speaker May 20.

Robert Chernak, senior president for Student and Academic Support Services, said Trachtenberg wasn’t the school’s first choice. He said about five very prominent individuals were invited to headline Commencement, but all declined.

The University may have tried to select speakers that were too high-profile, Chernak said.

“The frustrating thing about it honestly is … when you ask people of notoriety, you don’t get a response for several weeks and then you go to No. 2 or No. 3 or No. 4 or No. 5, or whatever it is,” he said. “And then time runs out, and you’ve got to make a judgment. It sounds like there is no credit given (to all our efforts).”

Speaker of the House Pelosi (D-Calif.) was also a “possibility” for the keynote speaker spot, Parent Services Director Rodney Johnson said Friday. She is scheduled to speak at Webster University in St. Louis this May.

Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Pelosi, told The Hatchet Monday afternoon that the congresswoman was already committed to speaking at the University of San Francisco’s commencement the say day as GW’s.

“We regretted (not accepting) the invitation from GW on March 20,” he said. “I know we had USF logged in way before that.”

Johnson said he didn’t know many details about the Commencement planning but has hinted that graduation attendees should remain optimistic about the possibility of a surprise.

“(Due to) the fact that graduation isn’t until May 20, there are always possibilities and always things that can happen,” Johnson said. “I can’t tell you what will happen, but there are always possibilities that may change. That’s the way life is.”

Both Schario and University Marshal Jill Kasle, who is a lead organizer of the graduation events, said getting a different keynote speaker will not happen. Kasle said Trachtenberg made the final decision to headline Commencement months ago, and that the logistics of getting a speaker take more than a year.

Although not a prerequisite, the keynote speaker has almost always been an honorary degree recipient. The process of qualifying for this highest honor of the University, Kasle said, is extremely time-consuming and difficult.

“It’s easier to be elected pope than to get an honorary degree from The George Washington University,” she said.

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