Discourse / Editorials / April 22, 2010

Thoughts from the Embers: Commencement speakers

For the past several years, one of the big draws to Knox for prospective students is the impressive list of past commencement speakers. As mentioned in the recent New York Times article on the subject, that a small liberal arts college in the middle of the Midwest could attract glamorous speakers like Stephen Colbert, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton is quite a feat. From the moment a student commits to Knox, they’re thinking, “Who’s it going to be for me?”

It seems like there is a pact made with new students every year that if they work hard and survive four years of Knox, there will be a payoff with some great commencement speaker. This year’s senior class has not been treated with the knowledge of their speaker yet and many seniors are beginning to feel antsy.

To be fair, Knox has set the bar pretty high, inevitably leading to disappointment at some point. After the three speakers mentioned above, Knox gave honorary degrees to Madeleine Albright and Patrick Fitzgerald, superstars in their own right. Who could beat them? Especially since Knox doesn’t pay its commencement speakers.

Many colleges dole out thousands of dollars for a distinguished person to speak for commencement. Does this make a college more attractive to big-name speakers? Not necessarily, as Knox has gotten some big names without dishing the dough. Perhaps it is more likely that monetary compensation persuades less-known but still established candidates to consider speaking at a commencement ceremony.

So, how did Knox get these speakers in the first place? Alumni connections. John Podesta, ’71, helped us get everyone from Obama to Fitzgerald, being a prominent member of state and national politics.

It’s safe to say Podesta has gone above and beyond his duty to arrange a prestigious list for commencement speakers. Knox has carved a space in the political world by hosting these speakers. Now, where can we turn?

A lot of discussion surrounds how a commencement speaker needs to be accomplished but also reflect the personalities of the class. With the arts and sciences as major facets of student interest, shouldn’t we look past politicians to artists or scientists? What about an athlete or businessman? Don’t these people have inspirational things to say?

At the end of the day, the status of a commencement speaker shouldn’t matter. We’re looking for someone to send off the seniors with wise words, with advice and encouragement to approach the “real world,” not necessarily somebody who is famous and will be an impressive story for our grandchildren some day. We need somebody who can address our class honestly about how to make a difference in the world. Isn’t that what we, as liberal arts college students, are trying to do?

But right now, the seniors don’t even have that. They don’t know who will stand before them at the climax of their college career and let them know everything will turn out all right. They don’t know who will earn an honorary degree in their class’ name. Seven weeks before graduation and a speaker hasn’t been announced. This is a problem.

It is also a problem that we expect somebody amazing to speak at commencement every year. That just isn’t going to happen. What we need to do now is focus on what is important: securing somebody from outside of the Knox community to come in and tell us about the world, about life achievements and about how we can continue to succeed after leaving the Knox bubble.

Certainly, not having a famous person speak after four years of anticipation is a letdown. But it isn’t as bad as not having a commencement speaker at all.

TKS Staff

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