February 1, 2008
__Commencement speakers have ranged from prominent political figures to popular comedians__
p. Connie McCarthy, dean of libraries and a member of the committee that recommends graduation speakers to the Board of Visitors, remembers her daughter’s graduation in 2002 when Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander delivered the commencement address. Two years later, when Jon Stewart ’84 addressed the Class of 2004, McCarthy said her daughter was jealous that her younger classmates were sent out into the world by the ‘Daily Show’ host.
p. “They got to hear Jon Stewart and we had to have Lamar Alexander?” McCarthy recalled her daughter saying.
p. But Alexander is important in his own right. The Tennessee Republican was a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 1996 and 2000. He trailed eventual Republican nominee Bob Dole in 1996, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain among others, in 2000. While Alexander might only appeal to the most politically savvy students, he may still represent what McCarthy says is the College’s ability to attract a group of important and diverse speakers to address the class at graduation each year.
p. “It’s really an interesting mix,” McCarthy said. “But you can’t please everybody.”
p. The recent history of College graduation speakers does represent a diverse group of leaders, with a noticeable emphasis on political figures.
p. Of the 28 speakers since 1980, six have been U.S. Cabinet secretaries, two have been U.S. Senators and six have been political observers or humorists (including Stewart). During that time, the College also hosted two foreign leaders, one governor, one Supreme Court justice, one Federal Reserve chairman, military leaders and one former U.S. president (George H.W. Bush). All but seven, or three-fourths of Commencement speakers during that time, were involved in political affairs in some way.
p. The College also appears to have had success attracting conservative speakers, with many former officials in the administrations of Republican Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and none who were appointed by President Bill Clinton. McCarthy pointed to the makeup of the BOV, whose members were largely selected by Republican governors, as one possible explanation for this phenomenon.
p. McCarthy said that, while students and the Commencement speaker committee have a say in who they would like to ask to campus, “the BOV really chooses.”
p. Other notable speakers included U.S. Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.), who addressed the class of 1968, six years before he became president. William H. Rehnquist spoke in 1977 while serving as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Rehnquist was appointed chief justice by Reagan in 1986.
p. Ginger Ambler, the assistant vice president for student affairs (whom some speculate may succeed Sam Sadler as vice president for student affairs), has organized the initial stage of the Commencement speaker selection process since the 1992 ceremony, when James A. Baker, the secretary of state for the elder President Bush, addressed the graduating class.
p. Ambler said her role is less focused on leading the selection process and more concerned with enabling students to make their own decisions.
p. “We help students get their process started before the committee” considers the options, she said.
p. Ambler also said that she has little power in picking the speaker, but has noticed trends in what kind of speakers the College normally invites. In the end, though, the choice sometimes comes down to logistics.
p. “The College really wants to look at people who have distinguished themselves honorably in their chosen fields,” Ambler said. “But sometimes it has to do with the scheduling of that person.”
p. Ambler said that the College also tries to bring other individuals to campus at graduation who are not the official speaker. Journalist Diane Sawyer received an honorary degree in 1988, and Madeline Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, spoke in 2001, though she wasn’t the official Commencement speaker. (John Stewart Bryan II, the grandson of a former College president, spoke that year).
p. Both McCarthy and Ambler said the best speakers are those who engage the graduates with their life stories and speaking styles.
p. “Jon Stewart was hilarious,” Ambler said. “He can be funny while also imparting some wisdom. His alumni status made him engage with the graduates in a way that was very special.”
p. Other recent speakers Ambler has enjoyed include Desmond Tutu in 2006, the year Ambler received her Ph.D., Glenn Close ’74 in 1989 and Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 1996.
p. For McCarthy, the best speakers also bring some sort of diversity to the podium, whether it is with their experiences or with their background, and impart upon graduates a message that will inspire them to make the world a better place.
p. “Someone who’s a change agent. Someone who promotes peace and learning in the world,” McCarthy said. “That’s the speaker I like.”