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Honorary Degree/Commencement Speaker for ’11

From WSO:

Who would you want? I just read that e-mail and thought that if we form some kind of small consensus here on wso, then we can send e-mails to the committee and get someone who we would really like.

1) What e-mail? Please put it in the comments if you have a copy.

2) Has the Honorary Degree committee solicited student opinion in past years? If so, how? If not, why the change? (Kudos either way. The more that student opinion is gathered and listed to, the better.)

3) Suggestions from readers? Obvious choice is soon-to-be Senator Martha Coakley ’75. I am in favor of any alum. I am against (almost) any non-alum.

4) I first raised the issue of the ideological diversity of commencement speakers 6 years ago. The last identifiably Republican/conservative speaker was in 1996. An easy way to break that streak would be to invite Harry Jackson ’75.

5) The racial breakdown of Commencement speakers provided for a rollicking discussion last year, including an apology from me, prompted by Sam Crane and (then) Frosh Mom. During the last nine years, every speaker but one has been either Jewish or African-American. The exception, Morris Dees, was (I think) the most embarrassing.

6) Who can help us improve our knowledge of the history of Commencement Speakers as maintained on Wikipedia? If you remember who spoke in your era, add them.

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#1 Comment By Ronit On December 11, 2009 @ 10:46 am

1. Yes, I remember the HDC soliciting student opinion, via a letter delivered to all student mailboxes. They called for nominations around halfway through the academic year.

2. Katie Couric was raised Presbyterian.

#2 Comment By David On December 11, 2009 @ 11:28 am

Katie Couric‘s mom was Jewish. (Yes, I realize that there is a big debate over who is Jewish, but Wikipedia claims that “According to halakha, the oldest normative definition used by Jews for self-identification, a person is matrilineally a Jew by birth, or becomes one through conversion to Judaism.”)

#3 Comment By JeffZ On December 11, 2009 @ 11:41 am

Ronit, I believe DK is one of the 300 biggest experts on the world regarding who is and is not Jewish, so don’t even go there.

I think we’ve reached a pretty broad concensus across Ephblog as to why Jackson would be an unwise choice, so no need to revisit that debate. Nice attempt to bait though, David.

Coakley, on the other hand, would be great. Although it would also be nice if, just once, Williams had a Commencement speaker who was actually funny (and while Coakley has many wonderful qualities, she would not deliver a rolicking address). Al Franken, for example, would be awesome. When was the last truly humurous Commencement address, I wonder?

#4 Comment By Ben Fleming On December 11, 2009 @ 11:45 am

Tom Friedman is a joke. Does that count?

#5 Comment By hwc On December 11, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

Tom Friedman is a joke. Does that count?


Williams, however, should stick with it at least two more Friedman Units before writing him out of the rotation.


I cannot for the life of me come up with the actual name of the speaker for my graduation. He was an Under-secretary of State type policy guy. A guy that C-Span junkies (if there had been a C-Span) would have recognized, but not been able to put a face with the name. His speech was incredibly dull and generic, something about the students gathering today to go out into a new world full of opportunity, yadda, yadda, yadda. Probably a little something about how the Soviet Union would remain the top challenge in the world throughout our lifetimes.

#6 Comment By JeffZ On December 11, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

I bet Williams would love either Stewart or Colbert. Then again, I bet virtually every college in the U.S. would love them as well. They must be the two most in-demand grad speakers …

#7 Comment By David On December 11, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

1) Jeff: Not everything is a bait.

2) Ben: At least Friedman is Jewish!

3) If you are interested in John Stewart, then I would e-mail Rachel Axler ‘99. Who knows where that conversation might go . . .

#8 Comment By Oh Five On December 11, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

I have thought for a while that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, would be a fascinating and worthy graduation speaker–he’s learned, erudite, principled and conciliatory and in a position of both political and social/religious/moral prominence. Even if he’s not an alum, he has the correct last name for the position…

And, I recall there being a rule or presumption against having politicians who are currently in office as commencement speakers. I recall Bush I gave a commencement address but I believe that was after he left the White House. I’m not sure where to look to verify or disprove this rule, but I do recall hearing it or reading it somewhere.

#9 Comment By Ronit On December 11, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

Is Anne Garrels Jewish? Garrels sounds kind of like a WASPy name, but I am not an expert on this issue.

#10 Comment By Ronit On December 11, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

@Oh Five: Rowan Williams would be amazing. And, yeah, Bush was definitely out of office when he spoke:


#11 Comment By aparent On December 11, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

Though a Williams parent, TF is also a buddy of MS — so I assume he’ll be speaking more at NU in the years to come (he recently appeared at MS’s inaugural festivities).

#12 Comment By David On December 11, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

Anne Garrels was not a Commencement Speaker (at least, if we are using that term to apply to the main speaker at graduation itself).

#13 Comment By epher On December 12, 2009 @ 7:01 am

What does David think of the Rachel Maddow suggestion on that thread?

#14 Comment By jeffz On December 12, 2009 @ 7:34 am

I love the idea, on that thread, of Charlie Day from IASIP — not really Commencement Speaker material, but having him on campus, at some point, in some capacity, would be amazing. Just to see him perform the incomparable Nightman …

#15 Comment By Jr. Mom On December 12, 2009 @ 9:57 am

Rachel Maddow would be fantastic! Love her.

#16 Comment By hwc On December 12, 2009 @ 10:54 am

Dont’ take it to the bank, but I think I’ve got another name to add to the historic list for 1976:

McGeorge Bundy

#17 Comment By David On December 12, 2009 @ 11:23 am

What does David think of the Rachel Maddow suggestion on that thread?

1) I prefer any Eph to any non-Eph (with the possible exception of someone super-famous, like Obama).

2) I prefer anyone with a connection to Williams over anyone without a connection. That thread mentions Matthew Perry (born in Williamstown) and Charlie Day (career start at Williamstown Theatre Festival). Both would be fine choices for that reason. (I also liked the Couric choice because she has a sister (?) that attended Williams and married and Eph.)

3) Does Maddow have a Williams connection? The thread claims that she lives in “rural western Massachusetts.” If so, I vote Yes.

4) I don’t have string opinions about any particular year, but I would like to see some balance over time. Imagine Williams had not had a black speaker for 20 years. In that case, I would push hard for a black speaker this year, no matter how much the kids love Maddow. The case of conservative speakers is analogous. If we invited ex-governor Dukakis, then we ought to, at some point, invite ex-governor Romney.

#18 Comment By rory On December 12, 2009 @ 11:33 am

@David: False equivalency: “Imagine Williams had not had a black speaker for 20 years. In that case, I would push hard for a black speaker this year, no matter how much the kids love Maddow. The case of conservative speakers is analogous.”

#19 Comment By hwc On December 12, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

I seriously doubt that any liberal arts colleges are ballsy enough to do it and stir things up, but getting Sarah Palin would be the commencement speaker coup of the year. She will be a headline magnet whereever she speaks next spring.

#20 Comment By kthomas On December 12, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

David writes:

“Imagine Williams had not had a green speaker for 20 years. In that case, I would push hard for a green speaker this year, no matter how much the kids love Maddow. The case of conservative speakers is analogous.”

There. That’s a little better. Can anyone help?

#21 Comment By Ronit On December 12, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

Bush spoke in 1996. Williams also hasn’t had a notable Democrat since 2000 (George Mitchell – former Senate majority leader). Yes, I know Robert Rubin spoke in 2001, but he’s notable for reasons that have little to do with his party affiliation.

I think, on the whole, highly partisan figures like Rachel Maddow or Sarah Palin are best avoided at commencement, especially if they haven’t held some notable high office.

#22 Comment By JeffZ On December 12, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

I agree with Ronit; generally, you’d rather not have a speaker who is so utterly polarizing that he or she would completely distract from the graduates’ moment. Bush was a former President, and not really a polarizing figure in all events, so he certainly didn’t qualify. And someone like Colbert and Stewart, while liberals, are humorists first and foremost, and would not make the speech about advancing their agendas, but rather about the graduates.

Besides, if Katie Couric’s speech was panned for being too fluffy / not up to snuff intellectually, why would you want someone whose own lack of erudition made Couric seem like a Rhodes Scholar by comparison?

#23 Comment By Ronit On December 12, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

Here’s the Katie Couric speech with commentary from Brandi ’07:


I hate to say this about anyone, but Couric was, quite possibly, worse than Friedman.

#24 Comment By Ronit On December 12, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

Chuck Davis in ’06 was surprisingly good in spite of the fact that he has no name recognition. He did a call-and-response routine with the audience and then made the whole senior class dance. I would support more figures from the arts like him. Much more interesting than the pablum you’re likely to get from political/media figures.

How about Mayda del Valle ’00?

#25 Comment By kthomas On December 12, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

Bush was a former President, and not really a polarizing figure in all events, so he certainly didn’t qualify.

He was annoying. When Bush spoke, Damon Vangelis and I got thrown out of the basement of Jesup by his… security. And they’d closed Morgan. You can’t get much more annoying than that.

In any case, by mentioning that GWB was not polarizing, you’ve said more about Williams’ so-called “liberal” bias than David possibly could. No other liberal arts college would possibly have had him.

#26 Comment By JeffZ On December 12, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

You really think so Ken? He was generally considered a very moderate President … I doubt many of Williams’ peers would have turned him down. His son might be a dicier proposition …

By the way I saw his speech and thought he was very good.

#27 Comment By kthomas On December 12, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

Jeff@JeffZ: There you go, removing the bait from the hook. What fun is that?

#28 Comment By JG On December 12, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

@Ronit: Agree that Rubin wasn’t particularly political. What he was actually was completely boring as a speaker. And long. Particularly long when two students had to hold umbrellas over his head and the rest of us were soaking in the rain, all after the hour-long lightning delay. I can’t remember a single word he said.

#29 Comment By an ’06 On December 12, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

I thought Chuck Davis was absolutely terrible. And condescending. The only bits of advice he provided were crude abstinence references (i remember something similar to “women keep your legs crossed”). Compared to him Katie Couric was amazing.

#30 Comment By Ronit On December 13, 2009 @ 1:24 am

@an ’06: As an onlooker, I found the Davis speech highly entertaining, though Evan Miller was certainly the highlight. And, let’s be honest, no one’s going to pay attention to any advice a commencement speaker provides anyway.

@JG: Too bad about Rubin being a bore. At least Williams has figured out how to deal with the rain – they now distribute thousands of purple ponchos (this happened in ’06).

#31 Comment By Jr. Mom On December 13, 2009 @ 9:26 pm


Wow. She’s funny. (Brandi, I mean. ;@)

I’d like to hear her commencement address. I daresay it would shake a bit of dust out of the rafters.

#32 Comment By kthomas On December 13, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

The challenge is to beat the investment banker from Bangalore, the software programmer from Prague, the manufacturer in Manila.

Wow. She is not funny. She is not kidding. And she’s unaware that the Czechs now pay programmers more than the Americans.

#33 Comment By kthomas On December 13, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

Katie I mean. As for Brandi:

Yeah, we tend to get rich without being famous, lest we show up on Ephblog.

Where do we nominate?

#34 Comment By Jr. Mom On December 13, 2009 @ 10:16 pm


Um, just to be clear, that (@32) was from the other “she”. To which the “funny she” (Brandy), had a pretty clever response, IMO.

But really, Ken? A programmer can make more from the Czechs? Why is that so, and what does it mean?

(cross-posted! Established then, that Brandy is the clever one, nay?)

#35 Comment By Ronit On December 13, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

I can confirm that Brandi is in fact one of the funniest people in our class.

#36 Comment By Ronit On December 14, 2009 @ 1:27 am

@kthomas: I liked Brandi’s comment in response to that:

I’m pretty sure our investment bankers have kicked the shit out of Indian investment bankers. Especially our Indian-American investment bankers, many of which were watching their kids graduate.

This is true. About the first-gen parents watching their second-gen kids graduate, who might have been a little offended by Couric’s xenophobic comment. Not to mention the international students, like me. Our class speaker (Auyon Mukharji) is, I believe, a second-generation Indian-American, and was a helluva lot funnier and smarter than Couric. Maybe she should start worrying about foreign competition for her job.

(Tom Friedman, when he came to speak at Chapin Hall, made the exact same point with almost the exact same words – I bet Couric cribbed it from one of his columns – and he wasn’t funny either.)

#37 Comment By kthomas On December 14, 2009 @ 3:15 am

@Jr. Mom asks:

Why is that so, and what does it mean?

I look at my reply, and imagine Brandi mocking it.

Seriously, a short (boring) answer is that:
–> labour is portable under the Treaty of Rome, so there are few reasons to work for less than EU market-rate; and IT work is highly portable regardless
–> EU countries have (mostly) equalized cost for specialized labour; there’s plenty of capital in CR; they may actually have to pay a premium
–> for this service, the Euro is worth 50% more than the dollar

I’ll attempt a shorter explanation, with plot, tomorrow (maybe). (Likely it will get longer before it gets shorter).

#38 Comment By Jr. Mom On December 14, 2009 @ 5:19 am

@kthomas says:

I look at my reply, and imagine Brandi mocking it.

Jr. Mom replies:

Yeah, that kind of stuff happens on a blog. In case you hadn’t noticed… ;-)

…and especially when you give a so-so commencement address at a place like Williams College. Can you imagine the response should Governor…Sarah Palin take on that kind of challenge?

#39 Comment By jeffz On December 14, 2009 @ 7:25 am

I think it’s time we start advocating* for Wade Rathke of ACORN fame to be awarded a Bicentennial medal and be Commencement Speaker. Can you imagine how vociferously Kane would have been complaining about the failure to invite to campus the conservative equivalent of Rathke, had he or she attended Williams for a spell?

*in case it isn’t clear from context, I don’t REALLY want to see Rathke deliver a Commencement address, etc. Although it might be fun to have him to campus to debate a conservative critic of ACORN.

#40 Comment By David On December 14, 2009 @ 8:26 am

I nominated Wade Rathke ’71 for a Bicentennial Medal. Isn’t it obvious that he has demonstrated “distinguished achievement” in the field of community organizing?

The difference between me and you is that I can put my ideological preferences to one side and consider the achievements of Williams graduates in a non-partisan fashion. You can not.

I also think that Rathke would make a great commencement speaker and would love to see Williams invite him but I am not sure that the relevant committee wants to get nominations from alumni. As far as I know, they do not, but corrections are welcome.

The Commencement Speaker should always be a Williams graduate.

#41 Comment By ephling On December 14, 2009 @ 8:46 am

Did he graduate? Wiki and his website says attended, normally code for did not graduate, from 1966-68.

#42 Comment By David On December 14, 2009 @ 8:49 am

I don’t think he graduated. But the College considers anyone who ever attended Williams an Eph, even if he did not graduate. We follow that convention at EphBlog.

#43 Comment By ephling On December 14, 2009 @ 8:57 am

Thanks, that sounds fair. I just wondered how you squared wanting him to be a commencement speaker and then stating all commencement speakers should be Williams graduates?

#44 Comment By David On December 14, 2009 @ 9:00 am

You’re right. I should have just said: The Commencement Speaker should always be an Eph. (Indeed, I would have no problem with a commencement speaker who was, say, a beloved faculty member or a famous Eph parent. The key is that they have a direct connection to Williams.)

#45 Comment By JeffZ On December 14, 2009 @ 9:15 am

Thanks for being an ass David. After all our discussion on point why do you state an outright lie?I think neither Rathke nor Jackson would be a good commencement speaker. You think both would. As is evidenced by your posting history you value confrontation over all other civic virtues. I do not. That is where our true distinction lies. The point is that none of the liberal posters here have advocated for rathke. If ideology was paramount to us as you continuously falsely claim we would have. But stay classy.

#46 Comment By David On December 14, 2009 @ 9:19 am

Why doesn’t Rathke deserve a Bicentennial Medal? (I am ready to believe that he would be a bad choice as a commencement speaker. I have never heard him speak.)

I apologize for assuming that you would not object to Rathke as a Bicentennial Medal winner. I confess now to total confusion over the criteria you would use in selecting BM winners.

#47 Comment By JeffZ On December 14, 2009 @ 9:59 am

Thanks. I apologize for calling you an “ass.” I haven’t really given thought either way to Rathke as a Bicenntenial Medalist, although I am not sure he is even eligible as he only spent a year or so at Williams in any event. I do, however, feel that he would be a polarizing, politicized choice as a commencement speaker, who would threaten to overwhelm the graduates’ big day and become THE story of the event instead of making the event about the students.

I confess to not really knowing that much about Rathke. My general disagreement with you re: bicentennial medals is that I think you CAN take into account the value of the “endeavor” in assessing worth of someone’s accomplishments. The most accomplished cancer researcher is, to me, more worthy of a bicentennial award than the most accomplished cow bell player, just as the most accomplished police officer is more worthy than the most accomplished bank robber. Despite being a liberal, I am not a moral relativist.

#48 Comment By rory On December 14, 2009 @ 10:07 am

while the “independent” investigation by ACORN’s hired lawyers was less than “independent”ly funded, it did find that the right-wing takedown was, perhaps unsurprisingly, less than fully honest . The truth is always far more complex than we first believe.

Either way, Rathke was very far removed from that particular scandal, yet it clouds any possible action with his name in the near future.

I believe, though this might be my “liberal bias” getting in the way, that Rathke and Jackson are qualitatively different. Jackson’s political actions go against the views of the College’s general consensus. Rathke’s political actions do not. It is, indeed, a slippery slope…but that should mean something, else we fall into a conundrum in which either all political leadership is to be praised regardless of the message/goal or none should be praised. Neither seems ideal nor acceptable to me. Yet I cannot find an acceptable middle ground either.

#49 Comment By hwc On December 14, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

…the College’s general consensus

That’s an interesting turn of phrase. Where might one go to learn of this “general concensus”? Is there a general concensus committee? Do they publish a screed?

I’m chuckling because there is anything but a “general concensus” even among the two Ephs in my household. There is certainly no “general concensus” among the Ephs on EphBlog. Or, even any discernable pattern of which Ephs agree with each other on a consistent range of issues.