Last December, Emory University’s student newspaper, The Wheel, reported that university president James Wagner would be the school’s keynote speaker at the commencement ceremony.
Within two weeks, 600 Emory students signed a petition and had convinced the University to start a search to find a new keynote speaker. By late March, Emory announced that global health advocate Paul Farmer would be addressing the senior class as the keynote speaker.
“At Emory we’ve had the Dalai Lama, Supreme Court justices and Tom Brokaw talk at commencement. It’s a nice tradition,” said Salvadore Rizzo, a sophomore and assistant news editor at The Wheel who has reported on the school’s commencement speaker search. “People are used to getting these big famous outside speakers. They expect it.”
Apparently, students at GW expect it too.
Last week, when officials confirmed that University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg would be the keynote speaker at the Commencement ceremonies in May, students and parents expressed their anger within hours.
Petitions have garnered upward of 320 names in less than a week’s time. The Office of Communications said they have received phone calls and messages from angry parents and students expressing their consternation. Some students have discussed turning their backs to Trachtenberg during his keynote address.
It is not completely unheard of for a school’s leader to serve as a keynote speaker. At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., the president headlined commencement ceremonies during his first year in office.
“Ten years ago, when our president had his first commencement, he was the keynote speaker,” said Dan Walsch, a George Mason spokesperson. “It’s a way of giving the president a goodbye, or in our case a hello. It’s a gesture of respect and goodwill.”
This year, George Mason will welcome Virginia Governor Tim Kaine as the keynote speaker.
Trachtenberg will not be the only university president addressing his school this May. Amherst College President Anthony W. Marx will be the college’s speaker this year.
University presidents often talk at their school’s commencement ceremonies, but are seldom the keynote speaker.
“It’s very traditional for our president to give a speech but not the keynote speech,” said Amy Wolfe, spokesperson for Vanderbilt University. “The president does give a state of the college-type address. Really, each university makes its own decisions.”
Vanderbilt will honor Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus this year with the keynote address.
Washington University in St. Louis will have Tim Russert as a keynote speaker this year. Sue McGinn, executive director of the undergraduates’ campus communication, said once in the 1950s the university’s chancellor gave the keynote address.
“I’ve been here for 23 years and in that time it’s never happened that the chancellor gave the keynote address,” she said. “That would be uncommon, at least in my experience.”
The University of Pennsylvania will honor James Baker III, former secretary of state and co-chair of the Iraq Study Group.
Catholic will have White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs James Nicholson speak. The University of Maryland will honor House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) with the keynote address. Northwestern University will host actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Howard is welcoming Oprah Winfrey.
New York University, Boston University and American have not yet announced their keynote speakers for commencement. But Maralee Csellar, an American spokeswoman, said to ensure there is not discontent with the speaker’s choice, students are part of a committee organized by the university president to choose a speaker.
“Senior class officers are part of that committee to choose the speakers,” Csellar said. “While it is traditionally and typically an outside speaker it would not be out of the question to have a president speak.”
GW’s Vice President for Communications Mike Freedman said while students do not have a direct role in choosing the keynote speakers, students, faculty, staff or anyone else are encouraged to submit candidates to receive an honorary degree from GW, which can be given out during the Commencement ceremony.
Last week, GW announced that CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer would receive an honorary degree at the University-wide ceremony. Blitzer is also giving the keynote address at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania May 12.
-Eric Roper contributed to this report.