After last spring’s commencement speaker and speaker selection process brought controversy, Ohio State is making sure students have a voice in selecting future orators.
Students will able to nominate a speaker of their choice anonymously through the Office of Academic Affairs website. A few students will also be part of a new committee that picks the speaker.
The speaker will ultimately be selected from nominations by students, faculty, staff and alumni through a selection process carried out by the Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee.
That committee consists of three students members — one each representing and selected by Undergraduate Student Government, the Council of Graduate Students and the Inter-Professional Council.
The new selection process starts with the university community suggesting speakers through the website, which is already open. Once a pool of speaker candidates is identified, a subcommittee of the Speaker Advisory Committee will develop a prioritized slate of candidates for each commencement.
There is no cut-off date for nominations, however — nominations made in the fall are still considered for spring, said Mike Boehm, vice provost for academic and strategic planning.
The subcommittee will be comprised of the three student members of the Speaker Advisory committee and three faculty Speaker Advisory committee members. The slate is then shared with Executive Vice President and Provost Joseph Steinmetz who, in turn, will deliver it to President Michael Drake for approval.
Boehm said the Fall Commencement speaker should be announced by Novemeber and the Spring Commencement speaker by March.
Richard Felty, a fourth-year in international studies and political science and the USG student representative on the committee, said students now have a much larger voice in the selection process than in years past.
“The way we have it set up now, in my opinion, is an excellent method. Any conversation that we have, if the faculty or staff make a statement, they always follow it up with, ‘How do the students feel about this?’ Or ‘What would the students think about this?’” Felty said. “The students are very much an active part and I think the university has done an great job in responding to the students’ wishes to be able to chose their own speaker.”
There are six faculty members, four staff members and one member of university administration also on the committee. Boehm convenes the committee.
Boehm said the biggest difference between this committee and previous selection committees is the weight the student voice carries.
“Just the mere fact that we have a portal and we have a diverse committee of students, faculty and staff that are looking at all the (names), then getting it to a group of … students and faculty, to then have the responsibility to come up with that really short list as a recommendation for the president, that is pretty cool,” he said.
The committee is looking for a speaker who is a leader in his or her field, a good public speaker with name recognition and who has core values consistent with OSU’s.
Boehm said while he doesn’t have a specific name in mind for future commencements, he does have a few characteristics he would like to see.
“First and foremost, I want someone who has a meaningful message for our graduates. I mean, that’s the point. And it’s about bringing some life experience, so whether not you are an alum of one year or whether or not you are the president of the United States, I want somebody who is going to connect with the students, who brings that message, who has an amazing life story. For me, that’s really the key,” Boehm said.
Felty said his ideal commencement speaker would be comedian Jerry Seinfeld, but that most of the student suggestions are all over the board.
“There is a trend with a lot of pop … anywhere from entertainers to people you see on the news, anyone visible on television, in movies. We are seeing a lot of those type of speakers,” he said. “But really, we are getting a diverse range, anywhere from politicians, to journalists, to entertainers, to current or past faculty and staff members.”
Michelle Van Schaik, a fourth-year in nursing who is set to graduate Spring Semester, was unaware students could nominate a speaker, but said now that she knows, she wants to nominate Beyonce.
OSU spokeswoman Amy Murray said in an email that the projected cost for Autumn Commencement is $125,000 and Spring Commencement is $415,000. She said these figures are estimates based off previous costs.
While OSU has a tradition of not paying commencement speakers, they will pay for speakers’ travel and accommodation, Boehm said. That amount is in addition any planned budget, he said.
The most recent commencement ceremony at the end of Summer Semester cost $78,000, while the spring ceremony totaled $420,000.
The announcement of the selection of Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” as the Spring Commencement speaker, was met with backlash after students played no part in the selection process.
In an interview with The Lantern in the spring, Steinmetz said the commencement speaker choice was made without the traditional use of a selection committee because the university was in a transition period from Interim President Joseph Alutto to then-newly-appointed President Michael Drake. Matthews was selected by Steinmetz and others in the Office of Academic Affairs.
With the new nomination process, Boehm said students and faculty are “empowered.”
“We are not going to please everyone, but I think what we try to do is do the right thing by having this be a student-faculty-led process. You have a diverse and inclusive group of people thinking and you give everyone the opportunity to nominate names, and it is what it is and there will always be some who don’t like it, and there will be some who are very excited,” Boehm said. “My hope though, at the end of the day, while not everyone will agree with the selection, they won’t poke at the process.”