Nominating Commencement Speakers: An empty offer?: The administration offered us a voice, but was it just to be ignored?

Posted by Andrew Shi

Correction: In an earlier version, I erroneously claimed that this was the first year that the administration sent an email out to students to solicit nominations. This email is sent out to the junior class and to faculty members every year. I also insinuated that the school pays commencement speakers. This too is not factual although the College may pay for travel expenses and accommodations. Apologies.

During last semester's controversy over the College's selection of Cynthia Carroll as a commencement speaker, this newspaper advocated for the administration to grant the graduating classes a more involved role in choosing their commencement speakers for the future. Two weeks ago, students of the class of 2015 received an email from the Office of the President, soliciting nominations for their commencement speaker.  

The process of selecting a commencement speaker can take up to a year and a half, which is why the Class of 2014 has been foregone. The email came attached with a form in which a student can fill out their nominee's name, occupation, achievements and affiliation with the College.  The form is not limited to commencement speaker, but the email insinuated that the main function of this outreach was to select a commencement speaker.

While I laud the administration for taking the steps to offer students the opportunity to select their own commencement speaker, I find these efforts wanting.

The largest issue is that students can, quite literally, nominate anyone. As such, a consensus for a nomination  will be nearly impossible to achieve unless the class coalesces to nominate the same person. Instead, the Office of Trustee Affairs which is vetting these forms will likely receive a bunch of names that have one vote each. But if by some miraculous effort students did unite behind a single nominee there would be the next obvious problem. These students would never have thought of nominating Cynthia Carroll or David Brooks (last year's commencement speakers), nor would the students nominating unilaterally in their rooms. They're writing down the big names. And as cool as it would be to have President Barack Obama deliver my class's commencement speech, it just won't happen.

A third problem with this system is that there are no guidelines as to how the nominations of students will affect the final decision by the Board of Trustees or the preliminary review by the Committee on Appointments, Promotions, and Tenure (CAPT). Will CAPT take one look at a nomination, realize it was by a student and then toss it out? Does a certain consensus need to be achieved in order for one name proposed by students to pass through CAPT? How much weight is afforded to us, the students?

The process is rudimentary, and needs to be revised. The first step to improving the process would be to increase transparency. If student voices are going to land on deaf ears, they're not going to bother and, unfortunately, President Glotzbach may find himself facing another 40-student protest in the future. My personal recommendation is to offer students their choice of commencement speaker. Historically, Skidmore has had three commencement speakers; designate one of the speakers to be chosen solely by the students as long as the nominee meets certain qualifications. These qualifications will be approved by the administration and this leads to my next suggestion.

There is no way that a class is going to arrive at one person and agree on him or her. Not enough people are going to randomly select the same respectable yet affordable person. Instead, they should be provided a list of potential candidates. Conveniently, the administration is in possession of a list of 40-odd candidates for an honorary degree. This list should be updated and disclosed to the student body every year. Let the class president than open the list up to a vote with a possible run-off until a majority decide on one name. This way, the qualifications of the candidate are already affirmed.

This, I suppose, also creates its own problems. There is undoubtedly a reason the list is kept secret. The administration understandably doesn't wish to offend any candidate by not selecting them, but doesn't a speaker realize that this isn't the first year they were considered and that they have been snubbed before in previous years?

None of this addresses the potential non-response rate of students, which at Skidmore is notoriously low; but in this past fall's SGA election there was an uplifting turnout (about one quarter of the student body). Students will vote, and even if the number is diminutive, the students' votes should still be valid. Assume the students that passed on voting are just deferring to their classmates, just as rightly them as the administration.

My proposal indubitably requires revision of its own, likely there are better ideas altogether on how to fix the current nomination system. But at the moment, the email sent out by the Office of the President delivers little more than an empty offer. The students don't want that, and I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to the administration and say they're genuinely interested in our opinion. That last remark will have to be justified by action, though. I'll concede it is at this point to late for my class of 2015, but what will be done for next year?

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