University selects graduation speakers

Businesswoman Sheila C. Johnson and classicist Hunter Ridley Rawlings, III will speak during this year's Graduation Weekend, the University announced yesterday.

According to Fourth-Year Trustees President Christine Devlin, Johnson will deliver her speech during Valedictory Exercises Saturday, May 17, while Rawlings will give the commencement address during Final Exercises Sunday, May 18.

Rawlings is a visiting professor of classics at the University who formerly served as president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Johnson was a co-founding partner of Black Entertainment Television and is currently the president and managing partner of the WNBA's Washington Mystics as well as the CEO and founder of Salamander Hospitality, LLC.

"Both speakers are people of stature who have taken special interest in the University and in our students," University President John T. Casteen, III stated in an e-mail.

According to Devlin, the major difference between final and valedictory exercises is that valedictory exercises focus entirely on the graduating fourth-year class, whereas final exercises involve professors, graduate students and the entire University community.

University Board of Vistors Secretary Sandy Gilliam said the commencement speaker was chosen by a group of students, the faculty and Casteen. The valedictory speaker, on the other hand, was selected only by members of the graduating class.

Every year, Gilliam said, a committee chaired by himself and comprised of students and faculty selects a short list of possible commencement speakers. This list is then sent to Casteen, who makes a final decision.

Rawlings was chosen because he is a prominent figure in higher education, Gilliam said.

In his e-mail, Casteen stated this year's committee wanted graduates to be able to hear a more extended version of the "thoughtful and provocative" statement Rawlings made to the University's Board of Visitors last October.

Rawlings said he is honored to be selected as the University's commencement speaker.

"I enjoy my colleagues and students quite a lot, and this seemed like a nice opportunity to return the favor," Rawlings said.

Rawlings added that he hasn't yet decided what he is going to speak about, noting that the committee's only request was that he keep his remarks under 20 minutes.

According to Wallace Gundy, Class of 2008 graduation committee chair, the process for inviting a valedictory speaker began nearly a year ago. Rising fourth-year students suggested speakers, and the graduation committee narrowed its search during the summer and fall. The graduation committee then sent out letters to prospective speakers, offering them the opportunity to speak.

Gundy said Johnson was one of the candidates who interested the graduation committee from the very beginning.

As an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Johnson is a "real figurehead" in the commonwealth of Virginia, Gundy said. Johnson also has ties to the University and pledged $5 million to the Education School in 2006.

Devlin said Johnson was a particularly attractive choice because she is an interesting woman "who will tell a good story."

"The valediction is really about the fourth-years who are graduating and so we wanted someone who would connect with the students," Devlin said.

Gundy added that the University wanted someone who was truly excited about giving the speech, rather than just a big name.

Unlike many schools, the University has never given honorary degrees or any kind of payment to its graduation speakers, according to Gilliam.

"Most people on the big-name speaker circuit expect an honorary degree or hefty honorarium," Gilliam said, adding that the University does not plan to alter its policy to attract more famous speakers.

"Really we look on it as a family occasion," Gilliam said. "We're not out trolling for a big name who may or may not say something important."?

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