Seniors hoping for a big name for this spring’s commencement speaker expressed disappointment at the announcement of a lower-profile figure, John Seely Brown, former chief scientist of Xerox Corporation.

Beth Dykstra
Beth Dykstra

“For students who’ve worked their butts off for four or five years, he’s not going to inspire us at all,” said LSA senior Nareg Sagherian. “Maybe someone like a CEO of a big company would or a chief justice of the Supreme Court. Someone who’s got a bigger name.”

Brown, a University alum, will speak on April 30 at 10 a.m. in Michigan Stadium. He has worked on developing artificial intelligence and was instrumental in expanding corporate research to include subjects such as organizational learning and nanotechnology.

“John Seely Brown combines visionary thinking with a clear-eyed understanding of how science affects people in everyday life,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said. “It is with gratitude and pride that we recognize this celebrated alumnus with an honorary degree.”

Some students do not share Coleman’s enthusiasm. After learning that Brown would be the speaker instead of a more prestigious orator like Neil Armstrong, who will be speaking at the University of Southern California’s commencement, Education senior Sara Gregory said she would not attend commencement.

“I was waiting to see who the speaker would be,” she said. “Since it’s not a big name, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

Instead, she plans to attend the School of Education’s smaller, more intimate ceremony.

Sagherian said the University lags behind other schools of comparable academic reputation in the caliber of commencement speakers. Several other seniors who expressed this concern cited Michigan State University, which snagged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was then President Bush’s national security advisor, last year.

MSU has not yet announced this year’s speaker, but other schools have, including Duke University (Chilean President Richard Lagos), Emory University (former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw) and Stanford University (Apple and Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs).

Some schools with less prominent reputations boast speakers who are household names, including High Point University in North Carolina (former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani) and Hillsdale College in Michigan (former U.S. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr).

Coleman chooses the speaker from a list of honorary degree recipients compiled by the Committee For Honorary Degrees. The committee is also in charge of gauging whether possible honorary degree recipients have an interest in speaking.

“Not everyone agrees to come,” said Gary Krenz, a committee member and special counsel to the president. “Believe it or not, not everyone wants to.”

Committee chair Steve Kunkel said that no one declined to speak this year to his knowledge.

Paul Edick, the committee’s undergraduate student representative, said that this year some possible speakers did decline to appear but that he could not release the names because of privacy issues. Edick added that possible speakers often defer because of scheduling conflicts. In the case of a conflict, the speaker is usually put on the list for the next year.

Kunkel said the prominence of a speaker is not the committee’s priority.

“We’d love to have big-name people, but that’s not our only criterion for selection,” Krenz said.

Krenz said criteria include how an individual conducts himself and his ability as a speaker.

“I think fame is in the eye of the beholder,” Kunkel said. “We’re not so much into the flash of the big name.”

Ultimately, the University Board of Regents must approve Coleman’s suggestion for commencement speaker.

Last year, the spring commencement speaker was David Davis Jr., founder of Automobile magazine. Students who expected a speaker as prominent as Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who spoke two years ago, or U.S. Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-NY), the speaker in 1993, criticized the University’s selection. But after Davis spoke, most students and their families were satisfied, Krenz said.

“Afterward, we got more positive correspondence about him than anyone I can remember,” he said.

As at other universities, the University does not pay speakers, but covers travel and accommodation expenses if necessary.

The selection process is the same for the winter speaker. Last semester’s speaker was Robert Moses, president of a national mathematics literacy effort aimed at low-income students — particularly those who are black and Latino.

University alum Stacy Baker, who graduated in December, said she could not remember Moses’s name, despite hearing his speech.

“He was a good speaker, but I just forgot,” she said. “When you look at other schools attracting governors, celebrities, presidents and other high-profile speakers, it’s kind of significant that I can’t even remember his name.”

LSA senior Melodee Babcock disagreed that having a big name is the key ingredient to a successful speech.

“Someone famous could be boring, and someone with a lesser-known name could be exciting and inspirational,” she said.

Babcock said she has attended the last three speeches because she has had friends graduating. Moses stands out as her favorite, she said.

“I don’t really think it’s the name of the person that matters, it’s what they have to say,” Babcock said.

But Sagherian said that after the thousands in tuition fees students pay, they deserve a higher-caliber speaker.

“Who are they going to get next year, someone from Home Depot? Some professor?” he said. “My sister’s graduating next year and I just want her to have someone memorable.”

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