Picture this: The man responsible for shining a critical light on President Barack Obama’s privacy policies delivering a stirring Commencement speech on the National Mall.
If GW makes the right choice, this could be a reality. The University should embrace controversy and pick alumnus Glenn Greenwald as Commencement speaker.
Greenwald, a journalist and 1990 graduate, has been both revered and scorned since he broke the story in May that the National Security Agency is stockpiling a trove of Americans’ phone records.
He and his whistleblower source, Edward Snowden, have made plenty of enemies. Exposing a powerful institution like the NSA would do that to anyone – especially an animated, rebellious reporter like Greenwald.
Since his own Commencement ceremony, Greenwald has fought to write about what others won’t, ardently challenging the government’s spying policy and fundamentally changing the conversation about privacy in the internet age. He was one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top global thinkers of 2013.
Now, he’s starting an investigative journalism nonprofit with the founder of eBay – the kind of entrepreneurial leap for which graduates should strive.
Greenwald has the potential to inspire and challenge graduates to discover their own rebellious streaks. He defied norms by refusing to remain silent in the face of criticism from American politicians and pundits.
In the same way, GW should defy its own norm of picking a safe candidate for Commencement speaker. Greenwald has a valuable story, but also a controversial and irreverent side that will draw eyes and generate positive coverage for a University trying to restore its image after numerous scandals.
At last year’s Commencement, actress Kerry Washington charmed the audience with her smarts, humor and likeability. But GW should step outside the box. There’s an opportunity to be bold here and pick a speaker who might not be as popular and endearing, but has transformed American culture and politics.
Of course, the University can’t make a Greenwald appearance happen like magic. GW doesn’t throw money at graduation speakers, and Greenwald doesn’t live across the street. In fact, his personal life has been the subject of much conversation: Greenwald resides in Brazil because his boyfriend was denied a green card in the United States. By picking him as a Commencement speaker, the University could also show support for the large LGBT community on campus.
But so far, the University has missed opportunities to publicize Greenwald’s GW ties at all. While the University constantly promotes alumni who work in Congress, head to the Olympics or host top-rated television broadcasts, even a GW Today post about the Snowden leaks didn’t mention that Greenwald is an alumnus.
As an institution, GW toes a politically correct line – sometimes frustratingly so. But picking Greenwald wouldn’t be pandering to GW’s political science and journalism students. Rather, it shows that no matter the subject matter you study, GW students have the potential to become the Glenn Greenwald of their own field.
To innovate and change the world, sometimes you have to make enemies. That truth should be on full display come Commencement day.
The writer, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.