Staff Editorial: Candor required in Commencement speaker search

As the spring semester gets underway, the senior class is focusing its attention on its impending graduation and the ceremonies it entails. After last year’s Commencement speaker debacle and the senior class’s increasing anticipation, it is time for the University to be candid and serious in its search for a fitting keynote speaker.

Last spring, campus erupted in a furor when the University announced that former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg would be serving as the keynote speaker. Vehement protest resulted in Trachtenberg rescinding his role as keynote, with no replacement possible on such short notice. The University announced that it had initially invited Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, former President Bill Clinton and Bill Gates but all had declined the opportunity. In order to avoid such embarrassment and controversy, it is crucial that the University strive to secure a speaker fitting the importance of this occasion.

With the political climate heating up, GW should aim to be the epicenter of this year’s election. What better way to welcome candidates to Washington than by inviting them to a graduation ceremony on the National Mall? We understand that the calendars of presidential candidates will probably be hard to maneuver. But as candidates begin dropping out of this race faster than President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, GW has its pick of former contenders. Political heavyweights who elected not to run for office should be contacted to run for our keynote speaker, regardless of political party.

Even if political speakers are not available, the University should ensure that the keynote address is delivered by an individual who connects with the student body. The best way to guarantee that students’ voices are heard on this topic is to solicit their opinion. Schools such as Syracuse University have gone so far as to create Web sites to achieve this goal. Syracuse’s model involves providing a list of considerations that should be kept in mind when a student is nominating a speaker.

After the final list of student suggestions is compiled, Syracuse’s official speaker selection committee reviews the contenders and submits a final proposal for consideration by the chancellor. Students are further included in the process, as three student representatives work alongside the Board of Trustees in reviewing the general body’s suggestions.

Syracuse is not unique in this exercise; Lehigh University follows suit. This system may not always ensure a satisfactory keynote speaker, but it certainly opens the process up to student opinion. For their part, students must also be realistic in their expectations of what the University can achieve on this issue.

This is far from what happens on our campus. While the University has no qualms with collecting $100 from each student as a “graduation fee,” it does not even feign interest in collecting student feedback on this issue.

Commencement marks a crucial point in a college career and, as such, deserves input from all parties, not just an administration. GW’s new administration, which has characterized itself as being receptive to students’ input, should evaluate how the graduates themselves are involved in the selection process.

The class of 2008 has seen its share of changes over the past year-let’s make a worthwhile speaker one of them.

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