Last month, the University announced that former President Bill Clinton will be the keynote speaker at spring commencement. This is a dramatic improvement over the accomplished – but low-profile orators – who have recently addressed the University’s graduating seniors. It’s about time.
The University has had less than glamorous speakers over the past five years, the most notable of whom was CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Ananpour, who spoke last year. Other recent keynote speakers include a chief scientist from Xerox and the founder of Automobile Magazine. These choices pale in comparison to the laundry list of world leaders, influential thinkers and artists other universities routinely attract, like U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, political rock star Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and filmmaker Spike Lee. There is no reason that a university with a name like this one – not to mention the largest living alumni base in the world – should have anything but a top-notch commencement speaker.
In the past, the University’s system for selecting a speaker has left something to be desired. Every year, the University presents people that exhibit its values with honorary degrees, and a commencement speaker is one of those honorary degree recipients. Unfortunately, by the time the slate of recipients is selected it may often be too late to secure a big-name speaker because other top universities are further along in the process. This year, the University made a small but drastic change in announcing a speaker earlier. Whether this was a result of the University starting the selection process earlier or simply being lucky enough to snag its first choice, Clinton’s selection is excellent and a model to follow in coming years.
Although the choice of speaker is stellar, early reports suggest that only about 40,000 people will be attending the ceremony at Michigan Stadium, which has a capacity of more than 100,000. With a speaker who has the universal appeal of Clinton, it is especially important this year that the University allow as many people to attend the ceremony as possible. The choice of Clinton has already excited graduating seniors and their families, which will inspire more of them to attend than usual. Also, many non-graduating members of the University community will want to hear Clinton speak, and the University should accommodate them.
As fantastic as this selection is, now that the University has proven itself capable of attracting first-class speakers, there can’t be a drop-off in subsequent years: Not only would that be unfair to current underclassmen, but it would also be unbecoming to a university of this caliber.
The reputation of this University warrants nothing less than the best. Who knows what’s in store for spring 2008 commencement. If being more timely was the most important change the University made to secure Clinton, let’s hope the search for next year has already begun.