Students underwhelmed but hopeful about commencement speaker
Since Chancellor Mark Wrighton announced Tuesday that Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and Washington University alum Mike Peters will be delivering this year’s commencement address, student response has been generally lukewarm.
Peters, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his editorial cartoons but achieved more widespread fame for his “Mother Goose & Grimm” cartoon series, received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University in 1965. He will return to his alma mater on May 18 to address this year’s graduating class and receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
While many students are looking forward to his address, a number of them have also voiced disappointment with his lack of name recognition.
“I don’t think I was excited or unexcited. I was like ‘Oh, it’s too bad it’s not someone I’ve heard of,’” senior Seth Berkman said. “As long as he’s got something good to say, it’ll be fine. Only if your graduation speaker is truly spectacular does it make a big difference in the day.”
Peters’ cartoons have appeared in publications ranging from Newsweek and TIME magazines to the University’s own Student Life, where he spent four years on staff as a cartoonist.
He has given lectures at Washington University three times in the past three decades through the school’s Assembly Series. Ten years ago, he was honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame on Delmar Boulevard.
Senior Genna Morton said that although she has not yet read any of his comics, she hopes to catch up on them before his address. While she was not initially excited about Wrighton naming him as the commencement speaker, she is hopeful that it will turn out well.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that I didn’t know who he was when he was announced and I think that a lot of people were looking for a recognition factor, but I’ve also heard that the speakers who are less famous tend to be funnier and more engaging with students, so it’s hard to tell how he’ll do,” Morton said.
Meanwhile David Brennan, a senior in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts who hopes to pursue a career in cartooning, said he and many of his peers are excited for the cartoonist to come to campus.
“I’m really excited about it because it’s kind of an affirmation that what I’m doing is a worthwhile thing to pursue,” he said. “I know he’s a funny guy—or so I’ve heard— so I think it’ll be a more interesting speech than somebody who’d be droning on about business or something.”
The selection for commencement speakers is a multistage process initiated by the University’s board of trustees. The board holds two meetings to narrow a field of nominees for honorary degrees before forwarding its selections to the chancellor, who then contacts individuals on that list that he would like to invite to speak.
“[Peters has] been involved in the national political theater as a cartoonist, and [he’s] someone who’s been well recognized for his achievements. And [he’s] someone who’s had a very positive experience at Washington University,” Rob Wild, assistant to the chancellor, said. “Sometimes when we have speakers who aren’t from the University, they’re great speakers, but they aren’t always familiar with the community in the way that Mike Peters will be.”