Gabriel Okolski: Commencement speaker angst

Over the past couple of days I have been wondering whom the senior class would least want to speak at Commencement – University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg or U.S. President George W. Bush.

Of course this dichotomy is just a thought exercise proving how difficult GW students are to please. While the administration has made an objectively bad decision by choosing our school president to deliver the keynote address and should expect the worst, I think students are also a bit off the mark in their protests.

Administrators should surely not be surprised at student threats to forego Commencement or to turn their backs to Trachtenberg as he speaks. For years, our president and the other leaders of GW have built this school on a foundation that heavily relies on glitzy, high-visibility figures and programs. The late CNN talk show “Crossfire” and the plethora of nationally recognized figures who have spoken here in the past are but two examples of this foundation, which is accompanied by a hefty price.

The GW outsider reading the news about the turmoil here on campus will probably not understand the problem behind a university president speaking at his school’s Commencement. But to the salty old Colonial who has come to expect the best, the more natural and expected reaction will be bitterness and disappointment.

Sure, President Trachtenberg can tell us that this year’s commencement is an attempt to cut back at a school that has a fetish for excess, but don’t expect people to believe it after four years of first-class treatment. It’s as if he were immediately putting us on a diet after throwing plates of food in our faces for four years. Students are thus likely to believe an alternate explanation that also sounds pretty catchy – Trachtenberg is turning our Commencement into his retirement party.

Whether this is actually true, only our mighty and controversial leader himself knows in his heart. But the students know one thing in their hearts – this just isn’t right.

The more nuanced student may realize the true reason why Trachtenberg’s keynote speech will be a bad idea – it does not allow for the outside voice that is so essential in a commencement speaker. We must not forget that our president is also a member of our graduating class, and he would benefit from an independent commencement speaker just as we would at what will be our final “class” at GW.

Of course the garden-variety student is probably more inclined to complain that the Commencement speaker will not be a famous politician. For so many people, it seems as if only a senator, former president or Supreme Court justice would be the only acceptable speaker. I suppose this is also not surprising, considering that GW has built itself a reputation as a mostly political-minded school.

I was beginning to think that our student body had been reduced to an old dog that could be endlessly poked with a stick without any sort of reaction. While it’s nice to see that GW students still have a pulse thanks to their reaction to the speaker news, I’m worried that we’re doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Four years ago, when the University named Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, former Supreme NATO Allied Commander Gen. John Shalikashvili, leading oncologist Luther W. Brady and Shakespearean scholar Gail Kern Paster as Commencement speakers, a number of students expressed similar outrage at the announcement of what many thought were “no-name” speakers. But in the end, these accomplished experts were indeed qualified to address the graduating class.

If the only thing that students this year want is a keynote speaker who has achieved political fame, and we are unwilling to compromise, then perhaps Trachtenberg’s role as the center of attention could ironically teach us some humility. But if students are more interested in hearing words of wisdom from outside GW, then keep fighting the good fight.

Although I know this probably won’t happen, I would love to see the University take back its decision and name an obscure but accomplished scientist, artist or scholar to give the keynote address on the National Mall in May. That decision would give insight into whether the graduating class has the right reason for opposing Trachtenberg’s role at Commencement. At the very least, it would guarantee that neither Trachtenberg nor Bush would be giving the main address.

-The writer, a senior majoring in political science and minoring in geoscience, is Hatchet opinions editor.

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