Brian Goldman | A greater say in our graduation speaker
The Gold Standard | Administrators should do more to get feedback from student representatives
April 2, 2012, 1:11 am · Updated April 4, 2012, 12:04 am·
To be perfectly honest, when Geoffrey Canada was named the 2012 graduation speaker last month, I was pretty disappointed.
Canada’s name didn’t bring the instant name recognition and gratification that past speakers — such as Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg — have brought to the ceremony.
It didn’t help that, for some reason, former President Bill Clinton was rumored to be one of the choices. Either way, the announcement of Canada was initially a letdown. In a Daily Pennsylvanian news article about Canada, many seniors held a similar view.
But now that the initial reaction has worn off, the idea of having Canada speak at commencement is starting to gain a little favor. I didn’t make the connection at first, but he is a key figure in the acclaimed documentary about education reform, “Waiting for Superman.” Without a doubt, he’s led an impressive career.
But the lack of genuine student involvement in selecting commencement speakers came to light with this recent announcement.
Wharton senior and 2012 Class Board President Jibran Khan, who sat on the commencement speaker advisory group, told me that there are 10 to 15 students — mostly seniors, some juniors — who make up the advisory group.
Student representatives meet with administrators to discuss various possibilities. They name speakers that they would like to hear from as well as potential themes that could be highlighted.
After this initial meeting to air suggestions and ideas, students are later presented with the final commencement speaker choice.
When I first learned about this process, I was surprised by how little say students on the committee actually have in choosing the speaker. I assumed, at the very least, that student representatives would be presented with a final list of potential speakers.
The current selection method makes it easy for administrators to become disconnected from the student body. The problem is not a lack of student representation on the committee but that Penn’s bureaucratic tendencies stifle student voices.
After merely one round of brainstorming and suggestions, Canada was presented to the student advisory committee as the final choice and then revealed to the student body as a whole.
There was no meeting for student representatives to debate the merit of potential choices and send their feedback to administrators.
And the school wonders why students reacted with surprise, disappointment and confusion?
When student input in selecting the commencement speaker is nothing more than a dog and pony show, administrators run the risk of backlash.
The problem doesn’t lie with these representatives, but with the fact that they aren’t an integral part of the selection process and are more of “necessary” accommodation.
The commencement speaker advisory group is designed to accommodate multiple student representatives who have a pulse on student life at Penn.
If there is going to be student representation in the commencement speaker selection process, then let there be full, unabashed student input.
To have otherwise is to do a disservice to not only the graduating class, but to the likes of Geoffrey Canada as well.
The issue here isn’t with Canada; he’s eminently qualified to be a graduation speaker. The issue lies with the process by which student voices are lazily computed into the selection equation with minimal effect.
If the administration had met with student representatives again, they might have learned that the average students places as much value in their graduation speaker’s name recognition as they do personal accolades.
Although faculty members and University administrators have the privilege of attending graduation every year, the Class of 2012 only gets one shot. It only make sense for us to have an actual say in who we hear from.
Brian Goldman is a College senior from Queens, N.Y. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gold Standard appears every Monday.