Discourse / Editorials / May 2, 2012

Thoughts from the Embers: The graduation speaker

On April 26, President Teresa Amott announced the speaker for Knox’s 2012 commencement: Brig. Gen. Mark Martins. This announcement of the speaker left some seniors confused and disappointed that a bigger name was not chosen, while others were displeased that his values were not in line with those of the college.

Those involved in creating the list of speaker recommendations from the Class of 2012 were upset that Martins was selected, as he was not on the original list. In the process of picking a speaker, the senior class officers gathered suggestions, which were then voted on to form a top 20. The class officers pursued these top 20, but for various reasons were unable to get them.

Following an unusual string of prominent speakers from 2005 to 2008, such as then-Senator Barack Obama, TV host Stephen Colbert, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, it is no surprise that students have high expectations for future commencement speakers.

However, these expectations have turned into an entitlement mentality. To see another recent example, witness the groaning that accompanied the announcement that the Verve Pipe were The Flunk Day performers. It seems that they did not chart enough hits for some of us, yet they were perfectly able to give a good show regardless.

The time, the effort and money that would have been required to get the big names on the list such as Jon Stewart and Oprah would not have been the best way to allocate Knox’s limited resources. Knox’s policy of not paying its commencement speakers makes it difficult to bring in more famous speakers, and the college has been fortunate in the past to obtain some in spite of it.

In comparison, other schools do not have commencement speakers or pay them thousands of dollars. In a New York Times article, it was reported that Rutgers University paid Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison $30,000 to speak at its 2011 commencement. To break down the costs, Morrison spoke for 15 minutes, at a cost of $2,000/minute. Is that really what we want Knox to spend its limited resources on?

Student organizations at Knox have done a pretty good job of bringing bigger-name speakers throughout the years. Bill Ayers, Dan Savage and Robin Wright are all nationally known and spoke on campus in the last year. This campus does a very good job of bringing in speakers, given our limited resources and reputation.

In addition to Martins not being a big name, some seniors have argued that he does not represent the spirit of the 2012 class. While the recommendation list had authors, journalists, etc., a speaker with a military and law background does not stray much from Knox’s values. As Obama’s Chief Prosecutor, Martins has become a noted proponent of transparency and legitimacy in legal proceedings involving detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He also oversees the prosecution of international terrorism offenses that violate the laws of armed conflict. There is nothing inherently wrong with bringing a speaker from a military background to campus.

The purpose of a commencement speaker is to give a thought-provoking speech, not to provide something to brag about to your friends who go to other schools. Complaining without having actually heard the speech is unfair to Martins and all of those who worked hard to bring him to campus.

Going into commencement, keep an open mind about Martins. Some people view commencement speakers as trophies. At commencement, seniors walk away with a diploma and a Knox education regardless of the speaker.

The TKS Editorial board

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