Preaching to the choir
Universities should seek commencement speakers whose ideas, though sometimes contentious, are capable of inspiring students
Gonzaga University faces another test after finals and before its class graduates. The school, a private university affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has drawn criticism from students, faculty, alumni and others for having invited Desmond Tutu to speak at its commencement. Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize winner best known for his activism against the South African apartheid. He is also an activist with opinions - such as his support of gay marriage and rights for abortion - which some Catholics, including the Vatican, oppose. Gonzaga has stood behind Tutu, who has accepted the university's invitation to speak at its commencement in May. We support the fact that both Tutu and the university have not backed down from their original agreement. It is bad etiquette to replace a speaker, but the real issue for universities is deciding on a speaker in the first place.
The selection should start by checking potential speakers' credentials - who is relevant or qualified to speak here. Speakers are often selected for their work in a certain field, and gauged accordingly: a physicist would be invited for his contributions to physics, and not his political views, however interesting. But information is not always secondary, as speakers come from different backgrounds yet all are invited to speak on the same platform to give a general, inspirational message and not a specialized lecture. So what that physicist thinks about politics could in fact become pertinent.
How far to scrutinize the backgrounds of candidates can be a tough call, as potential speakers may hold all sorts of bad histories or quack beliefs, especially the professionally outspoken: writers, politicians, activists. And these views may or may not be significant, depending on the school - a secular university are looking for different qualities than a private, religious one. Each institution has different criteria, and certain groups may still feel overlooked or antagonized regardless of the individual chosen. Schools should not seek controversy for controversy's sake, but neither should they look to appease critics when making commencement selections.
A commencement is just that, a beginning, and it is not a bad thing for speakers to challenge what undergraduates are used to. Students have spent four years at lectures of people trying to convince them, and if they could be "indoctrinated," it would have happened already. At commencement, students should look forward to hearing an interesting view, and universities should provide them with the opportunity.
Our University has failed to do so, instead consistently choosing speakers with little to offer besides being alumni or having local connections. In the past 10 years, numerous alumni, three governors of Virginia and a U.S. senator have spoken at commencement, along with President Casteen and a sitting professor. We are not saying the University goes out of its way to avoid commencement speakers who offer nontraditional perspectives. But then again, a former IRS commissioner spoke in 2003.
Universities, as well as our Public Occasions Subcommittee which gives President Sullivan a list of potential commencement speakers, should know that the inspirational and controversial are made of the same material - passion - and making the safe choice will make for a boring commencement.