Annu Subramanian: Spare us the political speeches at graduation

It’s the start of the school year, but I’m already thinking about next spring, when the Class of 2012 will celebrate commencement on the National Mall.

And while this year’s keynote speaker will likely be a well-known and highly-regarded politician, the truth is, there are a lot of other people who would be much better suited to address this year’s seniors, even if they don’t hold a corner office with a view of the Washington Monument.

Students have sought and achieved prestige beyond the political science department, so it’s time the University recognized their interests, too. Famous authors, scientists and artists will engage the Class of 2012, without using their podium to campaign for their next election or plug their latest policy change.

GW is a school in-and-of the nation’s capitol. That, however, doesn’t mean our student body is comprised exclusively of Hill interns who compulsively refresh Politico and could identify any fast-walking congressman from across Independence Avenue.

By only inviting politicians, though, that’s the message the University sends.

Consider Melinda Gates, a woman who has devoted her life – and large fortune – to service and social entrepreneurship. Gates’ dedication to global development in the fields of public health, education and community growth exemplify the University’s service-oriented focus. GW students take their love for study abroad, foreign service and volunteer work very seriously, and having Gates speak to them would be a satisfying reward for four years of altruism.

The University could consider inviting Malcolm Gladwell, a reporter whose passionate curiosity turns much of that conventional wisdom we hold sacred on its head. As someone who’s written about everything from love to football to pasta sauce, his breadth of knowledge and quirky findings will draw huge enthusiasm from GW’s mixed-bag student body. Plus, with his bizarre logic and larger-than-life hair, I can’t imagine someone who would deliver a more vibrant speech.

Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama could provide a bit of worldly guidance to over-caffeinated and underpaid graduates. Their soothing voices alone might render mom and dad more accepting of their child’s reprised role as a resident in their home. And while politicians’ commencement speeches have as much partisan charge as the students they speak before, these two spiritual men could unite the class of 2012 graduates in a more universal message of peace and contentment as students look toward the future.

My list could go on for much longer: Tom Hanks, Lance Armstrong, J.K. Rowling, Toni Morrison, Warren Buffett, Michelle Rhee, Ira Glass, Sanjay Gupta and Conan O’Brien would all make excellent commencement speakers. Keynote speakers at commencement are tasked with bringing together the graduates’ shared experience and lifting them up as they bid farewell to this chapter in their lives and each of these distinguished people – plus countless others I haven’t mentioned – could do that.

There’s more to GW than just politics, and, as the University becomes more and more research-oriented, that fact only becomes truer. So as the University undergoes its own transformation from a catalyst for students to use D.C. as their playground to an institution focused on scholarship, the administrative committee tasked with choosing this year’s speaker should bear in mind how their selection represents GW.

Let the graduates, and the University, celebrate change.

Annu Subramanian, a junior majoring in journalism, is the Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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