University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg will not deliver the keynote address at this year’s Commencement ceremony and it is unlikely another keynote speaker will replace him, according to a news release.
The president said he decided to step down from his duties as keynote speaker in light of the University community’s response to Monday’s tragic shootings at Virginia Tech.
“I thought after the melancholy events which took place at Virginia Tech, it seemed too sad a time for us to be engaging in the kinds of silly disputation that were going on at GW,” Trachtenberg told The Hatchet Wednesday. “(Being the keynote speaker) lost its flavor, so I decided to do a little fine-tuning and take away all the excuses for kvetching.”
Trachtenberg added that he does not anticipate announcing a new keynote speaker because the Commencement line-up is “getting a little crowded.” Unless, he joked, the Queen of England changed her mind and agreed to speak.
Director of Media Relations Tracy Schario said Trachtenberg will deliver the charge to graduates instead of the keynote address at this year’s ceremony.
A keynote speaker’s address typically lasts from 20 to 25 minutes, a charge lasts for a shorter period of time and honorary degree recipients typically speak for one to two minutes each, Schario said.
This year’s honorary degree recipients – journalist Wolf Blitzer, former mayoral candidate Linda Cropp, President of the National Academy of Sciences Ralph Cicerone, former U.S. Senator and Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker Jr. and President of the Institute of Medicine Harvey Fineberg – will each speak for four to five minutes. Catherine O’Connor, a graduating senior who resumed her studies at GW after a tour of duty as a U.S. Marine in Iraq, will also speak at Commencement, according to the news release.
In response to students clamoring for a more prominent speaker, Trachtenberg said, “They wanted pearls of wisdom? They’re going to get pearls of wisdom. They wanted famous speakers? They got five of them.”
Priscilla Monico, a senior who started a petition last week protesting the University’s keynote speaker selection, said she was happy the University responded to student opinion. Her petition has about 600 signatures.
“In our class, we as a group respect SJT and the immense impact he’s had on the University,” Monico said. “He ought to be recognized and we definitely want him to speak. We took issue with him being the keynote speaker.”
Schario said Trachtenberg’s announcement is linked to the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed at least 32 people.
“Have we heard concern and dissent in the last week – absolutely, but Monday’s events put things into context,” Schario said. “This debate is no longer the most important thing.”
Trachtenberg is speaking at another school’s commencement ceremony but declined to name the institution.
“They want to keep it secret until they release the information on their own,” Trachtenberg said.
In 2004, GW held Commencement without a keynote speaker. Schario also said the impressive slate of honorary degree recipients and the new format will keep things moving.
“The events at Virginia Tech have to have an impact on GW’s Commencement and they will surely impact commencements around the country, too.”
-David Ceasar and Geoff Cain contributed to this report.