Kathleen Sebelius' recent commencement address at Georgetown Public Policy Institute's graduation stirred up controversy (Georgetown is a Jesuit university and Sebelius openly supports contraception and abortion), leading some to ask: What merits an invitation to speak at commencement? What are students (but more importantly, the administration) looking for in a commencement speech? And, last but not least, will the speaker walk away with a check (read: honorarium) from the University?
As a Georgetown student, I’ve seen enough to get an idea about how my University may have decided on Sebelius as this year's commencement speaker. Generally, various administrative offices are involved when big-name speakers are invited to the University. The process for normal speakers usually goes something like this: An invitation goes out on behalf of the University. Once the speaker accepts the invitation, if they have an honorarium, an on-campus group known as “The Lecture Fund” covers the bill in part. However, for commencement, the system is different: Instead of eliciting student involvement, the University administration (the Dean's Office, the President's Office, and others) doles out invitations. Technically, the University has a “Senior Class Committee” which was created to deal with senior activities, but this group is not involved in choosing the commencement speaker.
The University privately deals with the speaker to settle the honorarium. Although Sebelius caused quite a stir, the additional undergraduate commencement speakers for Georgetown's other schools largely flew under the radar. For the Georgetown College and the McDonough School of Business, the speakers were television producer David Simon and the CEO of LivingSocial, Tim O’Shaughnessy. These names were announced less than two weeks before the address.
That being said, every University handles commencement speakers differently. Some are willing to pay whatever it takes to convince big name speakers to come to their school. In fact, just last year, Rutgers University handed over $30,000 to novelist Toni Morrison to speak at their commencement. For one speech, the author received almost as much as some of the University employees' yearly salary. This is quite remarkable, since it's always possible to find a speaker who doesn’t require an honorarium. In fact, in years prior to hosting Ms. Morrison, Rutgers University had never paid a graduation speaker.
In choosing the perfect commencement speaker, a university must balance various criteria. Should a university bring in as big of a name as possible, or a speaker which is lesser-known but native to the university? I believe commencement speakers should come have graudated from the university itself. Yes, various dignitaries, authors, and television producers can deliver a phenomenal message to those about to enter the “real world,” but graduates can’t relate to these people.
Graduation is different. Throughout the year, universities are constantly hosting speakers who do not share an affiliation with the university, and students always attend to listening and gain insights to these recognizable figures. But, at graduation, students are looking for something different. Before we walk across the stage, we want to hear my graduation speaker talk about what they did with the diploma we're about to receive. College students want to find inspiration and gain direction for our future from our commencement speaker.
That is certaintly something worth paying for.