Juniors: It’s time to start thinking about Commencement speakers

You may be absorbed in the midst of recovering from your junior midterms, struggling through your writing intensive, and enjoying or preparing for your semester abroad, but—as difficult as it is to believe—hotel rooms for May 2011 are already filling up because of overzealous parents’ reservations. Believe it or not, it’s time for you to start thinking about Commencement speakers too.

Though the process by which a Commencement speaker is chosen appears to be relatively secretive, we believe that student input about the kind of Commencement speaker we want is worthwhile.

Every year, seniors express strong opinions about the chosen speaker. Some seniors saw Chris Matthews as overtly politicized in 2008; last year’s audience found Wendy Kopp’s speech un-engaging.

In this particular year, hot-button issues on our campus and in our nation have included tolerance, pluralism and the environment. We would like to see a speaker who can allude to issues such as gay rights and coal utilization while also conveying a broader, more universal message. A good speech, we feel, is one that goes beyond talking points to deliver a message that is both interesting and profound.

Although it’s three semesters away, the Class of 2011 needs to make their voices heard, start a dialogue and ensure that they have a Commencement speaker that represents their class.

Though the University has its own criteria for choosing a Commencement speaker, throwing around these criteria have led us to a few recommendations for the committee that chooses the speakers, including the students who serve on the committee:

The following is the Student Life Editorial Board’s short list of Commencement speakers.

Al Gore: We had to do it. He may be a far reach, but we should keep pushing for him every year until he says yes. Activism on green issues has been a prevailing theme during our college years and one that we have proven we are passionate about. Having Gore speak at Commencement would be a great way to send us off into our green futures. Whether people agree with his agenda, his appearance will generate interest and impel us to engage in conversation about a sustainable future. Not to mention the fact that he was our vice president.

J.J. Abrams: The creator of “Lost” and “Alias,” Abrams is a pioneering entertainer in touch with the college demographic. He can speak about the influence of popular culture on a generation that has been—and will continue to be—defined by the media. On top of that, the crazy storylines of his shows are proof that he will deliver an engaging and entertaining speech.

Dave Eggers: We could go so far as to say that Eggers is the literary voice of a generation. He’s engaging, brilliant and successful—Eggers has topped the New York Times Best-Sellers List, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and founded the prestigious McSweeney’s literary journal. Eggers also offers insight for those students outside the literary circle, having received a 2008 TED prize for his work to improve education by setting up innovative tutoring centers and personally calling on community members to engage with local public schools. For us political junkies and media devotees, Eggers won a “Courage in Media” Award by the Council on American-Islamic Relations for his book, “Zeitoun.” His writing has even seeped into Hollywood: Eggers wrote “Away We Go” and co-wrote the “Where the Wild Things Are” screenplay with Spike Jonze.

Paul Farmer: Having founded Doctors Without Borders, Farmer presents a similar appeal to 2009 Commencement speaker Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America. Farmer’s organization provides free health care to Haiti and eight other countries in the developing world. On top of his inspiring humanitarian mission, Farmer is known to be a dynamic and effective speaker. Student groups have already demonstrated interested in his projects, and Farmer’s speech has the power to motivate students on his quest to cure the world.

Tom Wolfe: A prolific observer of American culture, Wolfe wrote “I Am Charlotte Simmons”—a reeling chronicle of the culture at elite universities in the 21st century. This perspective, along with Wolfe’s thorough examination of other cultural trends over a long career, ensures that he can speak to the struggles our generation will face as we move into a new decade. Besides, Wolfe is known for wearing only white suits, and we’d like to see him in a green commencement gown.

Michael Pollan: The author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” Pollan is an inexhaustible cultural critic who has reconfigured the way we think about food. Pollan’s work forms links between agriculture, economics, nutrition, sociology and culture, and we think that his big-picture philosophies are well applied to a generation that will continue to interpret these links as we age.

Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert: No explanation needed.

  • http://www.jeromebauer.com Jerome Bauer

    Steven Colbert’s fans petitioned NASA to name Node 3 of the International Space Station “Colbert,” and they had the most votes. NASA named it “Tranquility” (not Serenity, as many “Firefly” fans would have preferred) but they named the new treadmill the C.O.L.B.E.R.T, the “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,” complete with a mission patch featuring a caricature of Colbert running on a treadmill, and one of their astronauts appeared on his show. If NASA can have a sense of humor, why can’t the WashU administrators and trustees?

    Lecturer Dr. Jerome “riff-raff” Bauer
    STILL a local homeowner and taxpayer

  • redalertbear

    As a member of the class of 2009, we began campaigning to have Colbert as our commencement speaker about the middle of our junior year, complete with a facebook group of hundreds of our classmates and several letters sent to Wrighton and other decisions makers in the administration. Some of these administrators even replied to our letters. The fact of the matter is: your commencement speaker will be solely based on the administration and the financial status of WashU, not on any of your efforts.

    In short: save yourself the time. There are a lot more important and influential causes you can spend your college days on.

  • jenni

    I don’t think Paul Farmer is associated with Doctors Without Borders. His organization is called Partners in Health. That said, I think these are good choices! (except for maybe JJ Abrams)