Dick Durbin, a 20-year Democratic senator from Illinois, has been selected as the commencement speaker for the Class of 2016.
President Teresa Amott highlighted his dedication to public service in an e-mail sent out to the student body on Jan. 13. Durbin, Minority Whip of the Democratic Party, has a long-standing history in progressive politics. He’s passionate about the rights of undocumented students and the LBGTQ community and affordability of college education, especially through scholarships.
The process for finding a commencement speaker is more complicated than some might think. The responsibility of finding a commencement speaker falls to the class officers of the graduating class. Officers for the class of 2016 are Hyunjin Jung, President; Zane Carlson, Vice-President; Ben Stanger, Treasurer; and Jazmine Kenny, Secretary.
The first step to finding the speaker is to survey the class to find out what they want to see in their commencement speaker. A survey sent to the entire class had several questions, including what their major is, where they’re from and what gender they identify with in order to get a gauge on who the members of the class are.
The next questions asked what professional field they would like the speaker to work in, such as sports or journalism. The last part of the survey allows the seniors to suggest names for who they would like to see the school bring to the south lawn of Old Main in June.
However, of 330 graduating seniors, only 123 filled out the survey.
Jung commented on the lack of participation: “Our response wasn’t very helpful. People don’t really check their email, and if it’s a student dist-list, they normally don’t check. It was better than last year responses, but still we had lack of responses. It’s weird that they don’t really care about it, but then we announce it, then they’re going to [care].”
The class officers then compiled the data into charts and lists, including a top ten list of specific people that the student body requested. They presented the information to the Board of Trustees at the end of February.
The top ten suggestions, in order, for the Class of 2016 were: Laverne Cox, Ellen Degeneres, Amy Poehler, Hillary Clinton, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Janet Mock, Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Chimamada Ngozi Adichie. The class officers also presented Judith Butler as a choice.
While some of the suggestions point to the senior class’s preference for big celebrities, there is another set of criteria the class officers present for the Board to consider when looking for a speaker.
The top three fields that the class wanted to see a speaker from were, in order: arts and entertainment, humanitarian efforts and literature and philosophy. The officers also emphasized during their presentation that the speaker must reflect a liberal arts education, and represent Knox’s appreciation for diversity. This year’s senior class was also interested in someone who stands for social justice, human rights and multicultural values.
The officers also made a very strong point about about how the class specifically showed interest in someone affiliated with the LBGTQA+ community.
Hence, when the Board of Trustees picked Dick Durbin, there was some confusion among the class.
Some seniors, like senior Elliot Witt are excited about the speaker. “As a progressive, I really appreciate the fact that he has a really strong progressive voice. He is the Democratic party’s Whip in Senate, so it’s not like we got a first-term junior senator, we got one of the two or three most important senators of the Democratic party. É He’s someone who has a very strong vision for the future, and who could have a lot of really important things to tell Knox graduates, even allowing for the fact that he might be seen as more of a mainstream choice.”
Some are more disappointed by the decision.
Senior Caitlin Rochau said, “I feel like they did not listen to our suggestions at all. That’s why a lot of people are frustrated with the choice of Dick Durbin. Other classes had better speakers. I don’t know who he is.”
Jung felt stressed after the reveal.
“Some of the Facebook posts are ‘another white male politician.’ Some people are really opposed to it,” Jung said.
Jung did not make the decision, nor did any of the senior class officers. She explained that once they give their presentation, it is completely out of their hands. They did not know who the Board was considering until Amott called them in and presented the idea of Dick Durbin to them.
One problem with speaker selection is that the college does not give any money to whomever is chosen. The college only offers accommodation and transportation, which leaves the Board to pick somebody with whom a Trustee has a relationship, who would be willing to do it as a favor.
“The only reason why we got Ed Helms or Stephen Colbert was because they knew connections. One of the board of trustees was the uncle of Ed Helms; that’s why he came,” Jung explained.
Speakers like Ellen DeGeneres charge over $150,000 for an hour-long speech. Laverne Cox, who was contacted by a Trustee, was also not willing to do a speech for free.
Such restrictions led the Trustees to pick Durbin, who one of the Trustees knows personally.
However, Jung does have hope that Durbin will be a good match for Knox. “He really cares about the people. It seemed like he was really interested in giving a speech to us.”
The 2016 Commencement will take place on June 5.
Correction: A previous version of this article featured a photo of Senator Charles Schumer, rather than Dick Durbin.