Speaking of students

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March 1, 2011

9:18 AM

The College of William and Mary has finally announced its 2011 commencement speaker — a new name to some, but familiar to others, especially fans of College baseball. Joseph Plumeri ’66, renowned businessman and the namesake of the College’s own Plumeri Park, will deliver the commencement’s keynote address. A preeminent financial expert and noted philanthropist, Plumeri is known primarily as the CEO of the Willis Group Holdings, a London-based insurance brokerage, but he has also made generous gifts to many organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the College itself.

It has certainly been an eye-opening experience for us to learn of Plumeri’s accomplishments, and students are always well served to remember the achievements of previous alumni. But, clearly Plumeri isn’t the attention-grabbing, big name many had hoped would be invited to speak. We are therefore left wondering: Is this the speaker students really want?

Sadly, there is no way to answer that question, since the student body currently has little to no input in the selection process. While the Commencement Committee selects the student speakers and award recipients, the keynote speaker is selected solely by the College’s Board of Visitors. An attempt was made last March by Class of 2011 President Mike Tsidulko to solicit student opinion, but with a three-day response window student input could certainly be improved.

We cannot allow the Board of Visitors to virtually monopolize the selection process. Yes, choosing a well-known commencement speaker is in the interest of students and BOV members alike. Notable speakers are source of prestige and an easy talking point for recruiting prospective students, if an admittedly superficial one. But to assume that the BOV and the student body share the same preferences for a commencement speaker is absurd. That students have practically no say whatsoever in selecting their own speaker is obviously unacceptable.

We have two recommendations to improve this process. First, allow for more student input. This would be best accomplished through a student-selected committee, given that a direct campus-wide vote would not allow for the scheduling difficulties that inevitably occur behind the scenes. Second, abandon the current policy preventing the payment of commencement speakers. We understand that the BOV wants the prestige of speaking and an honorary degree to speak for itself, but to categorically rule out the possibility of additional compensation seems counterproductive. Payment would not be the only determining input — prestige still matters — but it might allow us to attract speakers outside our own alumni. Four of the last eight commencement speakers have been alumni. Even at an institution as old as ours, we are bound to run out of interesting alumni at some point. With any luck, by shaking up the selection process we can avoid ever reaching that point.

Editor’s note: The year was incorrectly written in the editorial as 2010. This has been corrected.

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