Brett Graham: On choosing our commencement speaker

Wednesday, January 3, 2018 - 3:24pm

“Get out there, get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble and make some noise,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. CNN anchor Jake Tapper chose simpler, more practical advice at Dartmouth College: “Always write thank-you notes. Be a big tipper. Always split Aces and Eights. Floss.” Perhaps my favorite of the many memorable quotes from college commencement speeches in 2017 came from actress Helen Mirren, who reminded the 2017 graduates at Tulane University that “Like a hangover, neither triumph nor disaster lasts forever.” 

All across the country, graduates and their parents heard from titans of industry, politicians, comedians, authors and people whose stories provided perspective and inspiration for their transition from undergraduate life into the “real world.” Not so at the University of Michigan. The 2017 graduating class will no doubt struggle to remember anything notable about the video and multimedia presentation they watched last April, in honor of the Bicentennial.

Considering the backlash that radiated from these events last year, I doubt very much that the University’s 2018 graduating class will see a repeat of this error in judgement. We can expect, at the very least, a speaker. Rather than wait, though, for the administration to make a choice that may be phenomenally underwhelming, why not take the reins on this one?

Our class has spent a unique four years in Ann Arbor. Punctuated for many by the 2016 presidential election, we have seen countless changes in University policy and culture, including the unveiling of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan, the decline of Greek life and substantial increases in housing costs and tuition. We cracked the discussion wide-open in reference to free speech on college campuses, and continue to debate the implications of Richard Spencer coming to campus. On the global stage, our four years saw refugee crises in the Middle East and Europe, a nuclear deal with Iran, the rise of nationalism across Western democracies and data leaks that rocked the world.

To put it another way, it has been an extraordinarily interesting four years to be a college student. Accordingly, to compose and deliver an appropriate speech — be it inspirational, controversial, comedic or anything in between — will be quite the challenge. What better search committee than those of us who discussed these events in classes and dining halls, and who have an idea of what tone we would like to capture?

Student-led searches for commencement speakers are not at all out of the ordinary. Just last year, the student body at Rutgers University succeeded in bringing President Barack Obama to their graduation ceremony. “Emails, letters, tweets, YouTube videos – I even got three notes from the grandmother of your student body president,” Obama said. “I have to say, that really sealed the deal.” In 2014, it was a student-led campaign at the University of California at Irvine that chose to hear from President Obama as well.

At Manhattanville College, student government works in tandem with administrators to "create a list of potential speakers.” At Dillard University, each graduating senior submits a list of 10 personalities from which they would like to hear. Though such processes would obviously be a logistical nightmare at a university as large as ours, these examples provide a stark contrast with recent incidents of student protest in relation to commencement speakers.

Such incidents include, but are not limited to, recent events such as the selection of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at Baltimore University and Vice President Mike Pence at the University of Notre Dame. Each speaker sparked their fair share of outrage among the student body.  Regardless of whether or not you agree with their protests, no one can deny many students were greatly upset with their university’s decision.  Just a few years earlier, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to decline an invitation to speak at Rutgers University based on the student body’s distaste for her record in favor of the Iraq War and as a supporter of torture.

Clearly, there are two ways of going about this selection process. One involves a lot of tension, long-winded Facebook posts and protests. The other involves a little bit of effort, a lot of student input and the satisfaction of all parties knowing that the decision is shared by thousands of members of the target audience rather than a group of administrators offering their best guess of what will go over well.

The right person for the job might be John Lewis, Jake Tapper or Helen Mirren. It might be an entrepreneur, an actor, a politician or an academic. My personal wish list includes Stephen Colbert and Michelle Obama. Whoever it is, as a member of the 2018 graduating class, I would like to hear from someone we picked on graduation day.

Whether it be The Michigan Daily or the Central Student Government or the University administration who gets the ball rolling, the discussion should start now. Not that any of us need the reminder, but April is right around the corner.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu