It is nearing the middle of spring term and seniors are becoming increasingly anxious, wondering who their commencement speaker will be.
President Teresa Amott, who is responsible for contacting potential commencement speakers, explained this delay as part of the process the school must go through to find a speaker.
“It’s a process in time,” Amott said. “It can take weeks before a person will confirm if they’re coming or not.”
This process began last year, when the rising senior class created a list of potential commencement speakers for their graduation. That list went to then-President Roger Taylor ’63, who began to pursue those names. Then, when Amott came in the summer, she picked up where he left off.
“The round of names that was generated in the spring, … many of the people on that list would be very difficult for us to get,” Amott said, “names like Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, Michelle Obama …”
Knox generally goes one of two routes in finding a commencement speaker. The first, less preferred route, is to go through an agent. This process generally takes weeks. The second route is to use some sort of connection a faculty member, alumni or even a student has to reach the person more directly. Still, this is not always the most reliable process.
“Sometimes the connection allows you to get right to the person’s personal assistant, and they can tell you yes or no,” Amott said. “But sometimes the connection is more distant … somebody might say, ‘Well, I went to graduate school with that person … but I don’t have a current email for him, but he’ll probably remember me from 35 years ago.’”
Occasionally, this sort of connection will secure a speaker for Knox, but not always.
“We were very close to getting a speaker, a very distinguished speaker,” Amott said. “And at the last minute … they said they could not, that that particular weekend was not going to work for them.”
The process is perhaps more complicated than at other schools because Knox does not pay its commencement speakers; they are instead awarded honorary degrees. The names also must be pursued one at a time.
“These are distinguished people,” Amott said. “You have to go one at a time; you have to make an offer to them, ‘Would you like to come be our commencement speaker?’ because you can’t then withdraw it.”
All the while, weeks can pass before a response.
“You can’t say to a Nobel Prize winner, ‘Well, I need to know by noon.’ … No, what you say is ‘Well, we really would like to know, would you let us know next week?’ And then next week rolls around, and they say ‘Well, we’re working on it,’” Amott said.
The lateness of the announcement, however, has nothing to do with the quality of the speaker, according to Amott.
“Sometimes you get a fabulous person at the very last minute. Sometimes you get somebody early … and they don’t give a very good talk,” she said.