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Convocation Selection Needs to be Reformed

I will let others reserve judgement on the selection of Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, as this year's Convocation speaker. But I think its patently obvious that the entire process, nay philosophy, for selecting a Convocation speaker should be re-considered.

For quite some time, the process of selecting a speaker can be best compared to the way in which a new pope is chosen. The entire graduating class waits around, breaths held, until some self-important and all-assuming members of their class come to a seemingly random decision and decide to let some white smoke emit from their chamber. And look where it has gotten us:

-- Wesley Clark (2005)
-- Danny Glover (2002)
-- James Carville (2003)
-- Martin Luther King III (2006)
-- Soledad O'Brien (2007)

Admittedly, Bill Clinton in 2004 and Maya Angelou last year were bright spots and many thought that Soledad's speech was touching and insightful. But the norm for Cornell's convocation speakers is overwhelmingly a D for disappointment.

And I must say, I will forever be embarrassed by the fact that my parents and I had the privilege of hearing Wesley Clark's stump speech -- almost verbatim -- a year after he had dropped out of the Democratic primaries and six months after John Kerry lost the 2004 election. Nobody seemed to clue him in on to the fact that a decent percentage of the graduates he was addressing were not Americans, either.

There's an unfortunate, overwhelming tendency to chose liberal figures of marginal political importance in lieu of compelling candidates in the fields of medicine, engineering, business, journalism, comedy, literature, art, or education. It's not like my politics stand in opposition to the political speakers that have been selected, but II could never understand such a politically liberal inclination on a campus that is as diverse and as multifaceted as Cornell's.

So either reform the process so that there is a more diverse set of voices from around campus influencing the decision -- perhaps the deans can select a handful of students from each college instead of putting it in the hands of the campus politicos -- or do away with the practice of inviting a random speaker all together.

One interesting resolution to the problem would only allow a Cornell faculty member -- chosen by the graduating class -- to be chosen to speak. The Mortar Board Honor Society has never had trouble finding faculty members to provide interesting, entertaining, and insightful speeches to student as past of their Last Lecture series -- including the likes of Ron Ehrenberg, Harry Segal, Michelle Moody-Adams, and Jim Mass. Still another option would be to limit the selection process to Cornell alumni -- it shouldn't be news to anybody that there are a wealth of Cornellians out there in the real world leading very interesting and motivating lives.

I suspect that either option would not only result in a much more content senior class, but also be much cheaper to boot. And that's something that's important to keep in mind these days.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on February 27, 2009 (#)

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