The chants of “spell-check” that resounded through the Big House during graduation last April indicated that the commencement speaker, John Seeley Brown, was much better known for inventing the spell-check tool than for his work as former Xerox chief scientist or for his rhetorical prowess. Many students felt dissatisfied that their undergraduate careers ended with a speech from someone they considered obscure. Two weeks ago, The Michigan Daily reported on the University’s attempt to bring former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in as the 2005 commencement speaker (Powell rejected offer to be ‘U’ grad speaker, 09/08/05). Instead of providing Powell with sufficient notice, however, University President Mary Sue Coleman mailed a request to Powell a mere three months before graduation. That the University pursued Powell shows it too wants to bring a big name to campus for graduation, but it is going about it entirely the wrong way. Coleman should recognize the importance of reforming how commencement speakers are selected and the president’s office should announce a revised process before the month is out.
Many families travel across the country for commencement and have dumped thousands of dollars into the University; at the very least, they deserve a great speaker that has been an inspiration to the entire nation. Years later, the content of a commencement speech will escape the minds of graduates, but the pride of witnessing an influential figure whose name they actually remember will stay with them for life.
But beyond the luster of a big name lies something deeper: Some of the most powerful and groundbreaking speeches in the 20th century have been delivered during commencements. In his 1946 address at Westminster College, Winston Churchill gave his famous description of the Iron Curtain of Communism descending upon Europe. Here in Ann Arbor, former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the idea of the Great Society, one of the most important liberal ideas of the 20th century. A commencement speaker is more than a big name – a memorable speaker can introduce important ideas and bring students together through a shared experience.
The University’s graduation is weeks before many other universities; this poses as both a blessing and hurdle for the commencement process. Many big-name speakers should be available considering the commencement season has hardly begun by late April. On the other hand, holding graduation so much earlier requires the University to notify its intended speakers even earlier than most schools.
Stanford University notifies its speakers nine months in advance, and Wake Forest University spent 18 months working on Powell in 2004. It is unclear what the University was thinking when it invited a secretary of state only three months before graduation. Something must change now if the University wants to obtain a speaker of Powell’s caliber for this coming graduation. The current University protocol to secure a commencement speaker is clearly unsatisfactory and must be reformed. There are still seven months left until graduation; there is no reason a speaker of Powell’s prominence should not be standing before graduates come spring.