Trending news on campus is the announcement of the 2013 commencement speaker, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. A graduate of the University with a degree in computer science, Costolo was invited to speak on May 4 by University President Mary Sue Coleman. The selection of a new commencement speaker during Central Student Government election season brings an important issue to light: Students don’t have an adequate say in deciding who the commencement speaker will be. Regardless of the method it chooses, the University should give students a more active role in choosing their commencement speaker.
Commencement speakers are chosen by the Honorary Degree Committee. The committee is led by Coleman, and only two students serve on the committee. There’s an online selection form that students can fill out and send into the committee, but ultimately, the committee makes the final decision. Also, the speaker must be eligible to receive an honorary degree from the University. Recent commencement speakers include Sanjay Gupta, Governor Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama. There are, however, several faults with this process. The option to submit a request for a speaker isn’t publicized well enough, so students don’t even know they can influence the decision. The two students who do get on the committee can’t possibly speak for the entire student body. Plus, one student submitting a form has much less influence than deans or higher-level officials. The committee must allow students to participate in a broader and more unified way.
The lack of a student voice can lead to conflict over the speaker. In 2011, when Snyder was selected to give the commencement address, students protested the choice by signing a petition and protesting a Board of Regents’ meeting. Students were upset that he had recently cut 15 percent of the state’s higher-education funding, yet they barely had a voice to choose someone else whom they preferred. The Honorary Degree Committee must concede its power over choosing the speakers, and students should be able to have a strong influence on the process.
Finally, CSG candidates must have a stance on this issue. Past CSG Presidents have promised to secure more student involvement in the selection process, but they’ve failed to keep those promises. CSG candidates can look to other schools for ideas. For example, Syracuse University has an online form open a year in advance. An all-student committee organizes every student submission, trimming it down to a short list they send to the chancellor, who makes the final decision based on availability and cost, but overall, students are more involved in the process.
The selection of commencement speakers must be expanded to include the student voice. The speech, after all, is meant for the students, and the speaker is there to deliver an inspiring message to the graduating class. The University needs to publicize the process of selecting a speaker, and it could even create a shortlist of eligible speakers for the students to vote on. By making students valuable participants in this process, the University can ensure that the speaker, in some sense, is the voice of the student body.