Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell could have been the big-name commencement speaker many graduating students were hoping for, but he denied a request to appear as 2005’s spring commencement speaker, according to documents The Michigan Daily obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Powell did not provide a reason for refusing the invitation, University spokesperson Julie Peterson said, but he left open the option of speaking in the future.

“Not many people have turned down honorary degrees from us,” said Steve Kunkel, last year’s chairman of the committee for Honorary Degrees.

Many students have expressed disappointment in the choice of recent speakers, who were lower-profile figures such as John Seely Brown, the former Xerox chief scientist, last year and David Davis Jr., founder of Automobile Magazine, in 2004.

“From what I’ve heard, Powell is a good speaker, so it would have been better,” 2005 LSA graduate Nareg Sagherian said. “Ninety percent of the kids there didn’t know who Brown was.”

The letter to Powell notifying him of his honorary Doctor of Laws degree and requesting his service as speaker was dated Jan. 11, 2005, significantly later than a number of other universities traditionally begin courting their high-profile speakers. Stanford University, for example, notifies speakers in October, and its commencement takes place in mid-June. The University of Michigan’s commencement is held in late April. Last year, Stanford snagged Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

“We contacted (Jobs) in October to stay in front of the line because that’s when most colleges do it,” said Stanford Prof. Jody Maxmin, who served on the committee to select the speaker.

In 2004, Powell agreed to speak in front of Wake Forest University’s graduating class. According to the Old Gold and Black, the campus newspaper, the process to land Powell took about one and a half years.

Powell has a history of serving as a commencement speaker even during busy peroods in his life. During his WFU speech, he noted that he was supposed to be on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan at the World Economic Forum.

“My staff had meetings scheduled all through the evening, but I said, ‘No way, I’ve got to get back. I’ve got to be on the quad in 20 hours,” Powell, who was secretary of state at the time, told the graduates. “I really enjoy commencement activities. I really enjoy being with young people at this turning point in their lives.”

In 1993, he spoke at Harvard University while holding the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Since he resigned from his secretary of state post in November 2004 and stepped down from it Jan. 26, 2005, he has not held public office and has mostly stayed out of the news, with the exception of a spat with John Bolton, the recently confirmed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. No stranger to higher education, he is reportedly currently a candidate to be the 12th president of Cornell University, according to multiple news sources.

After Powell’s refusal, Coleman sent a letter on Jan. 31 to second choice Brown, who was already slated to receive an honorary degree. He accepted and spoke at commencement on April 30.

Sagherian said that more graduates would have attended the speech if Powell had spoke. “A couple of my friends didn’t show up when they heard who was speaking.”

Some students treated the speech as a joke, he said, shouting the words “spell-check” because Brown invented the spell-check tool on word-processing programs.

Kunkel said he had heard positive feedback from graduate students about Brown’s speech, but none from undergraduates, who the ceremony is intended for.

“A lot of graduate students understood how important he is,” Kunkel said. “He’s an outstanding scholar and an outstanding scientist.”

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