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Commencement 2009

We have discussed some of the speeches from Commencement 2009 already at EphBlog. But, as the summer runs down, I thought it would be a fun to devote one post per day to a different speech. Series will start tomorrow. I know what I think about the speeches. Tell us next week what you think.

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Commencement 2009 Recap

Congratulations to the Williams College Class of 2009!

The Speeches

Honorary Degree Citations

Emeritus Citations

Did you attend commencement? Please share your thoughts, and/or links to your videos and photos in the comments below.

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Commencement Speakers

Random New York Times surfing allowed me to add the identity of the 1989 Commencement Speaker to our Wikipedia listing. But surely we can fill in some of the missing years? Note that 20% of the speakers in the last 20 years were African American (Cole, Franklin, Reagon and Davis). Wasn’t somebody complaining a few months ago about having too many white speakers?

Also, consider my claim from 5 years ago about ideological diversity among Williams Commencement Speakers.

Looking at this pessimistically, it is sad to see Williams not doing a better job of providing balance. Of course, a sample size of 10 isn’t enough to draw serious conclusions, but I don’t recall graduation speakers being too right wing in the 1980’s. A good out of sample test going forward will be to see how Williams does over the next 10 years. If they fail to invite any of the three recent Republican governors of Massachusetts or any leading Republican Senators and Cabinet Secretaries, it will probably be fair to conclude that there is as much bias at Williams as anywhere else.

Our out of sample test of five speakers shows two liberals (Friedman and Halberstam), two artists with uncertain (to me) politics (Davis and Serra) and one news anchor who votes Democratic (I think) but is largely non-political in her public persona (Couric). What are the odds that the College will have a conservative/republican speaker in the next five years? Low. If we invited former Democratic governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for 1990, why wouldn’t we invite former Republican governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate Mitt Romney for 2010? Because the people doing the inviting think that liberals/democrats are more interesting and/or honor-worthy than conservatives/republicans.

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Commencement Speakers Announced

So exciting – my very first post, and it’s a scoop.

Williams announced its commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients today. You can check out the Press Release for the full details.

For those without the time to go read:

Acclaimed artist and sculptor Richard Serra will be the principal speaker at Williams College’s 219th Commencement on Sunday, June 1. Actor, director, and author LeVar Burton will be the baccalaureate speaker on Saturday afternoon, May 31. Former Secretary of State George Shultz will deliver an invited lecture on Saturday morning, May 31.

During the Commencement ceremonies on June 1, President of the College Morton Owen Schapiro will confer honorary degrees on Serra, Burton, Shultz, British economist Frances Cairncross, financial director and advisor Robert Lipp, and women’s health advocate Dr. Nawal Nour.

And now for the commentary aspect that will possibly make David regret letting me post: is it just me, or is Williams still following the not exclusive, but seemingly common, pattern of people of color speaking at baccalaureate and not graduation? I suppose I should preface this by commenting that I’m not in any way saying that the commencement speakers are not deserving….that is not what this is about. We have been lucky at Williams to have a distinguished group of speakers who admittedly have not all been white (and shockingly an entire 5 out of the last 35 have been women). It was, however, a running joke when I was at Williams that when we heard the list of the honorary degree recipients, we could guess who would be the baccalaureate speaker – or at least who wouldn’t speak on the big stage. True, it is a pretty great honor to be asked to speak at Williams at all, but all things being equal (accomplished, talented, powerful, inspiring people worthy of coming to Williams to speak) there was a perception by students that there was a tendency not to let some people speak at commencement.

The list of commencement speakers is on Wikipedia (although some of the links seem to be to other people with the same names, notably Chuck Davis). It is not exclusively white dudes, but it is overwhelmingly. And before the usual “but until 1970 Williams was mostly white guys” chorus starts – being an alum is not a prerequisite for speaking at graduation.

I don’t have time to run through every press release for the last however many years (and they are only archived to 2001 on the Williams website), but a quick look shows that we had a white grad speaker and person of color as baccalaureate speaker in 2007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 – and we will in 2008. So in 2006 they broke with tradition. This may just be me seeing things that aren’t really there, but, like the amazing lack of younger alums, women, and alums of color on the Board of Trustees, such oversights can cast a negative light on the Williams we all know and love. This struck me tonight given the flap about Geraldine Ferraro’s recent comments and her “don’t call me a racist, I’m oppressed, too” response. You don’t have to consciously be a racist to say things or do things that are taken to be totally insensitive. I just think it is worth pointing out that this tendency was noticeable enough that students at Williams joked about it.

And hello everyone! I promise to enjoy the arguments that are sure to ensue from any posts I make. I’ll try to get a real bio up at some point soon. Basics now: graduated in 2001 with Religion major and African-American Studies concentration. I was a nonprofit fundraiser and then an organizer for a few years before heading to law school. I graduated in May, and now I’m in DC as an honors attorney with one of the banking agencies (which means I can’t comment too closely on any issue relating to work).

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James Carville Disses Williams

What’s up with this random diss (I think?) of Williams students from James Carville?  Good thing I’m already an Obama supporter:

James Carville, Mr. Clinton’s political strategist in 1992, said that the jousting between the two camps had hardly turned toxic, and that the stakes of this election were too high to have a milquetoast campaign.

“This is not Williams College students electing a commencement speaker. This is a huge deal,” Mr. Carville said. “Does the president risk going overboard? Sure. But Obama runs a risk of being wussified.”

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Commencement Speakers

Someone has been adding to the history of Williams Commencement speakers maintained at Wikipedia and started by me. Are those additions accurate? I have no idea. But surely the collective wisdom of the readers of EphBlog can do better than this! I just added Henry Cisneros for 1988 (my year). Unfortunately, I have no memory of his speech and only came up with the name by consulting my copy of the program. Check yours on contribute!

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Sign This

Professor Alan White had these thoughts on last spring’s graduation.

Thanks for the note, Dave, and for letting me know about it. Just
before heading to graduation Sunday, I mentioned to Jane what a key
part of the ceremony I take that to be. My suspicion is that even
those grads who know it’s coming are moved by it more than they’d
anticipated.

Clever opening by the class speaker: he looks to the woman signing his speech, then to the audience, says, “So, want to see how to sign some dirty words? Sorry, I’m not that big of an asshole.”

Good to know. I still think that the Class and PBK speakers should be chosen via audition to a mostly student-selection committee, but perhaps the current process works well enough.

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Commencement Address

Anyone looking for a link to David Halberstam’s commencement address can click here. Here’s a funny tidbit:

So there is life after college; I’m proof of it. And so was Henry Ford II, the grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company, who went off to Yale in the late thirties, where he proved to be a devoted playboy but regrettably, an indifferent student. In time with a critical paper due in an English course, he paid a classmate to write the paper for him, was caught in the act, and was unceremoniously bounced from Yale without his degree.

Still the future was not that bleak for him. He managed to get a job after college: with the Ford Motor Company of course–he was wise enough not to change his name–and he soon, amazingly enough, rose to the top, becoming in almost record time the president of the company, and thereby, one of the most powerful and richest industrialists in the country. Much later, a somewhat rueful Yale, always on the lookout for a new building or two–the Henry Ford School of Business administration–invited him back for an honorary degree. That day Henry Ford stood up, held up his beautifully written speech, looked at the assembled Yale officials, waved the speech in front of them, and said, “And I didn’t write this one either.”

I wrote this one.

Indeed. Incidentally, he delivered it at Skidmore College’s May 22 commencement. It happens to be, for all intents and purposes, the same speech as the one he gave two weeks later at Williams.

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Commencement Speaker Diversity

The Center for the Study of Popular Culture has some interesting articles on the spectrum of political opinion represented on elite campuses (campi?). This article, “One Last, Lefty Lecture” argues that graduation speakers are much more likely to be Democrat/Liberal rather than Republican/Conservative. The article demonstrates, in fairly convincing fashion, that the ratio of left wing to right wing speakers is more than 10 to 1. Better yet, they provide a listing of all the speakers and how they were characterized. Here is the section on Williams.

1994 Michael S Dukakis       Governor    L
1995 Bernice Johnson Reagon  Composer    L
1996 George Bush             President   R
1997 Grace Paley             Author      L
1998 Yo-Yo Ma                Musician    N
1999 Christopher Reeve       Actor       L
2000 George J Mitchell       US Senator  D
2001 Robert E Rubin          Cabinet     D
2002 Morris Dees             Lawyer      L
2003 Eric Lander             Scientist   N

2D, 5L, 0C, 1R, 2N

Looking at this list optimistically, it is nice to note that Williams (unlike both Amherst and Wesleyan) has at least one Republican/Conservative. Because of the inclusion of former President Bush, Williams also does better than the average elite school with a 7:1 ratio.

Looking at this pessimistically, it is sad to see Williams not doing a better job of providing balance. Of course, a sample size of 10 isn’t enough to draw serious conclusions, but I don’t recall graduation speakers being too right wing in the 1980’s. A good out of sample test going forward will be to see how Williams does over the next 10 years. If they fail to invite any of the three recent Republican governors of Massachusetts or any leading Republican Sentors and Cabinet Secretaries, it will probably be fair to conclude that there is as much bias at Williams as anywhere else.

Whether or not this outcome is a good or bad thing is a topic for another day.

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