Discourse / Editorials / May 13, 2010

Thoughts from the Embers: Our commencement speaker

Tina Tchen, thank you very much for agreeing to deliver the commencement address for the Knox College class of 2010. We are excited for you to welcome us into the world with carefully chosen words of advice and encouragement as adulthood becomes our reality. You are an incredibly accomplished woman and we are proud to host you at our fine institution.

That said, administration, faculty, alumni, please don’t fault us seniors if we are a tad disappointed by this year’s commencement speaker. It isn’t that we need somebody as famous as Bill Clinton or Stephen Colbert. The prestige of these speakers is impossible to match every year (especially when we don’t pay our speakers a dime). The fact is, Tchen doesn’t really represent our class very well and the circumstances surrounding her selection are dubious at best. To use our own lingo, administration, this selection was a cop out.

Yes, Tina Tchen is extremely qualified to deliver Knox’s commencement address. As Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, she holds an important position in the White House, has successfully contributed to a number of impressive law cases and is a proponent of “women’s issues” (if we can describe any issues as pertaining only to women), including sexual assault. This is good, but for a majority of the senior class, political science and activism are not our focus.

First of all, an overwhelming number of us have spent the past four years pursuing degrees in the humanities and creative arts. Our wish list of speakers was filled with authors, comedians, artists and journalists. We are not best defined by somebody who represents the White House or the government.

Second, perhaps we would be more forgiving of this last-minute announcement of an old acquaintance of President Roger Taylor’s if she hadn’t already been slated to speak at the September 2009 Knox Convocation. Due to scheduling and airplane delays, she did not deliver the Opening Convocation speech, but she meant to.

Opening Convocation is insignificant when compared with commencement. The convocation audience is faculty (because they have to be there), the choir (because they are performing) and freshmen (because they think they have to be there). Commencement, the celebration of completing four rigorous years at Knox, is a much bigger deal, not an opportunity for second chances.

Finally, last month an article was published in the New York Times about Knox’s high-caliber commencement speakers. Is it ironic that such an article was printed weeks before a comparatively unknown White House employee was announced as this year’s speaker? No, it’s not. An article about fantastic commencement speakers couldn’t be published next year because this trend of high-level, influential speakers has been broken. Knox had to get its name out there while it still could.

This year’s speaker should come as a relief to the Knox administrators and speaker-choosers because the bar isn’t set so high for the next few years. Students will stop expecting rock stars for speakers and absorb the speech’s message for the content, not the celebrity. This may even come as a relief to seniors who feel their “thunder” might be stolen by the famous speakers on “their day.” But, watching Bill Clinton walk past you as he leads the seniors into commencement is a pretty amazing moment and probably worth it. When else are most of us going to meet somebody of that caliber?

Anyhow, hopefully this year will make it easier for us to obtain commencement speakers well before the fifth week of spring term. Hopefully, we’ll now be able to reach outside of the “political” and “law-minded” speakers and secure speakers from a diverse range of life experiences to represent the student body’s diverse range of interests. Hopefully, from here on out, commencement speakers can be more of an inspiration for the seniors instead of a PR tool.

Thank you again, Tina Tchen, for agreeing to deliver our speech. Our gripe isn’t with you. You are a wonderfully accomplished person. We just wish the administration had done a better job of dealing with the circumstances surrounding the selection and announcement of our commencement speaker.

TKS Staff

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