I had another column, as usual, in this month’s Cardozo Jurist. I was inspired by an April 21, 2006 column in the Rice Thresher, written by none other than CNN’s own Jo Ling Kent. You see, Rice graduation doesn’t have a student speaker, and Kent thought that this needed to change. As she wrote in: “Commencement deserves student speaker”
Not having a student speaker at commencement is like having free tuition in 2006: It is shocking and grossly archaic. I polled a few students for their reactions to this, and most responded with some variation of, “We don’t have a student speaker? I just assumed we did.”
But according to the Board of Trustees’ newly adopted mission statement, Rice is “a leading research university with a distinctive commitment to undergraduate education.” Keeping this in mind, inviting a student or two to share anecdotes about their Rice experiences would fall in sync perfectly with the undergrad-centric goal of the university.
However, Kent never really explained why a student speaker would be such a good thing beyond her general claim that it would fit with the goals of the university. But that is an awfully broad claim. Rather than back it up, she spent the rest of the column preemptively rebutting arguments against a student speaker.
So what exactly is holding Rice back from unveiling a refreshing and long-overdue twist on commencement? Over the past year, I discovered that there are a number of administrators, faculty and alumni who oppose the idea of a student speaker lineup every May for either flimsy or outdated reasons.
Most people said picking a student speaker would be political and therefore unfair. A selection process via committee or election would be inadequate, they say. Simply granting the Student Association president a few minutes to speak might not be fair either, given the voter turnout or lack thereof. With this logic, they claim no student should speak at all.
So, if everyone does not agree on who the U.S. president should be, we should just forgo the presidency altogether. Brilliant.
Another major point of contention is whether a student speaker would jeopardize a controversy-free ceremony. Heaven forbid we ignite any controversial dialogue on this campus. And for those who are worried about streakers and protesters, do not forget that commencement falls on May 13 this year. Nudity will inevitably be front and center.
And if protesters are a worry, tell me about a time when you have seen enough protesters at Rice to disturb an event, and I will show you a pre-med who does not obsess about organic chemistry.
And finally, my favorite argument: An additional speaker would force commencement to last too long. Well, if that is a problem, switch on a handheld mini-fan and enjoy the show.
I remember at the time supporting her position. But after talking it over with people in the Thresher office, and just generally around campus, I was convinced otherwise. Stephanie Taylor summed up the arguments against a student speaker quite well in her letter to the editor. Notably, the final sentence:
Instead of allowing a few students to inflate their egos for a few minutes, Rice should continue to make commencement a time when all graduates are congratulated in the same manner — in heavy gowns and by people who have actually been adults in the real world.
There is a certain mystique to graduation. However, after sitting through my own high school and college graduations, I think it is a fair assumption that all the grandeur is generally an illusion. You sit. You wait. You listen. You want to go home. By law school, we should all be over that, and merely appreciate the graduation ceremony stripped down to its most basic essence. A graduation speaker at least has the premise of being someone who can give guidance as you enter the real world, or for law school, the legal world. But a student speaker can’t say anything that everyone else at the school already doesn’t know.
And if a student speaker does have something important to say, why wait until the last minute to do it?
But these days, even the role of graduation speaker seems to be reduced to a celebrity position to appease students and get attention, in exchange for cash payment of course.
Cardozo has a student speaker. Another addition to the already long ceremony. However, that position is elected by whichever group of students decides to show up to a speech competition and listen to all the potential speakers. Thus, I threw my hat in the ring, with the promise of not giving a speech if elected. I probably won’t win, but in your heart, you know I’m right.
Anyways, my column (pdf: Evan for cardozo speaker)