CNN host Fareed Zakaria has been met with controversy in his professional past, and Ohio State University President Michael Drake and the Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee said that his past issues were not a reason to keep him out of consideration.
Drake said in an interview with The Lantern that Zakaria’s past indiscretion was not a disqualifier for him as a commencement speaker choice, and that a disqualifier would be one that is confrontational or controversial in way that alienates large fractions of the audience.
“The committee and I believe his issues were a long time ago, that they were a mistake that was corrected and he’s one of the nation and world’s most active political thinkers and he’ll give a stirring and exciting talk and that’s why he’s coming,” Drake said.
Zakaria, a political analyst, journalist and author, was announced as the 2019 spring commencement speaker on Feb. 28.
In August 2012, Zakaria was suspended for a week after plagiarizing from a column on gun control in the New Yorker in a column originally published in the Washington Post. Zakaria apologized for his mistake, calling it “a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault” in a statement.
Along with hosting Fareed Zakaria GPS (Global Public Square) for CNN Worldwide, Zakaria is a columnist for The Washington Post, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, and an author of three New York Times best-selling books.
Despite his past incident of plagiarism, Ryan Schmiesing, vice provost for outreach and engagement, said the Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee looked at Zakaria’s complete history of work and not just a specific moment in their past, as they do for any potential speaker.
“We look at the total body of work of the individual,” Schmiesing, the convening provost on the committee, said. “And in this case it would be the same for Fareed Zakaria or anybody else that is selected. It’s not a moment in time that it’s selected or based on whatever has happened.”
Despite Zakaria’s plagiarism incident, Drake said they were “looking past” the indiscretion because the issue was resolved in the past.
According to the Office of Academic Affairs, the committee considers five main qualities when picking a speaker: a good public speaker, in a position to deliver a meaningful, relevant message for students; a leader in her or his field; name recognition; qualities consistent with Ohio State’s “mission, vision and values.”
Matt Couch, associate dean of students, said the committee focuses on these five factors when choosing the speaker, but also use the students on the committee to determine if they are good fit as as speaker for graduating students.
“Those are the primary qualities and the ones we end up discussing for the top people on our list,” Couch, student life representative on the commencement speaker advisory committee, said. “It helps to get [the student] perspective on the appropriateness the speakers would have toward the celebratory aspect of commencement.”
Drake said Zakaria has been on the list for years, and the committee would have recommended him years ago. But with him being a prominent figure, his schedule was tight, which can be the case for any commencement speaker the university tries to invite.
Schmiesing said that the committee submits multiple recommendations every year for all three commencement ceremonies, but ultimately, the president decides who to invite.
According to the Office of Academic Affairs, the committee is responsible for seeking suggestions and nominations for the commencement speakers from the university community, which is primarily done through an online portal.
Anyone can submit a recommendation for a commencement speaker through the portal on the Office of Academic Affairs website. This portal was introduced in 2014 after the university did not garner student input in choosing spring 2014 commencement speaker Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC political talk show, “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”
Couch said they have received names of celebrities, scholars, faculty and even Ohio State students, with hundreds of people submitting suggestions.
Ben Johnson, a spokesman for the university, said he encourages students interested in the process to be involved in nominating a speaker.
“Obviously, this is a very high-profile selection, and we know there’s a wide array of opinions on campus every year. We welcome that,” Johnson said. “Anybody who has thoughts about on who they would like to see as commencement speaker next year or in any year should nominate someone.”
Students who want to submit a nomination for a speaker can at anytime, but if they are looking to submit someone for the ceremony they plan to graduate in, they will have to submit a recommendation up to a year in advance.
“We are always working essentially six to eight months in advance and one year in advance of the following May commencement,” Schmiesing said.
Spring commencement begins at noon on May 5 in Ohio Stadium, and according to an announcement, about 11,700 diplomas are expected to be handed out at the ceremony.