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Baccalaureate Speaker: Martha Coakley ’75

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Honorary Degree Citations

Read by Greg Avis ’80 and President Adam Falk:

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Commencement Line-up …

… alums Jay McInerney as commencement speaker, Martha Coakley as baccalaureate speaker.

A few thoughts … I have long advocated having, all things being equal, Ephs deliver these speeches.  They are far more likely to tailor their speeches to Williams in particular, and to have something of relevance and potential resonance to impart to undergrads, as opposed to the typically trite, platitudinous, recycled commencement address (I’ve sat through or read quite a few at various institutions, and it always amazes me how uniformly bad they are).  That being said, last year’s speaker, despite being an Eph, didn’t exactly light the science quad on fire, and I find McInerney to be an odd choice.  I am guessing he will, at the very least, be charming / funny / entertaining, but it seems like Williams could have found an alum who is a bit more, errr, current.  For example, if choosing a writer, why not Bethany McLean, author of The Smartest Guys in the Room (and no, I don’t just say that because she is gorgeous) … like McInerney, smart and well-spoken, but her areas of expertise would CERTAINLY be of a lot more interest / relevance to current undergrads.  As a general rule, if someone has recently appeared on both Colbert and The Daily Show, they are likely to resonate with college kids.  Coakley, on the other hand, I think is a brilliant choice.  Everyone knows who she is, and she almost certainly will have something compelling to say about both success and failure.  As for the honorary degrees, great call honoring local luminary Stephanie Wilson (the theme, if there is one this year, seems to be Berkshire County natives, as both Coakley and McInerney also hail from the region).

The undergrads seem less than excited by McInerney as well.  A few interesting tidbits from this thread.  First, the list of speakers at small liberal arts colleges (notable exception: Maddow) shows just how hard of a time Williams and its peers appear to have in drawing big-name speakers for commencements.  Second, I thought the comment about Coakley and the Guadino Option was brilliant … (speaking of which, I think the Gaudino Option itself is a great idea).

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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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John Glenn

Dialogue with John Glenn.

I confess to not watching this video, but I liked the citation for Glenn’s honorary degree.

Let’s see, there’s Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Daniel Boone, and John Glenn. A square-jawed, young Marine from the Midwest, you flew more than one hundred combat missions in World War II and Korea, returning at least twice with more than two hundred fifty bullet holes in your plane. Later, as a test pilot you set a record by racing from coast to coast in the time it takes to watch an in-flight movie. Then you became the in-flight movie, when on February 20, 1962 you rode the improbably small and fragile-looking Friendship 7 capsule three times around the Earth, while the nation watched with its heart in its throat until you returned with a splash that marked the beginning of U.S. advancement in space. Dusting the confetti from your lapels, you moved, Davey Crockett-style, to Congress where for twenty-four years you fought to reform government and to control the spread of nuclear arms. Here in academia we are trained to doubt simple stories and to question the heroic. But today we say: the heck with that! For one thing our nation surely will need in exploring its newest frontiers is the near-mythical valor embodied in the person and the name “John Glenn.”

I hereby declare you recipient of the honorary degree Doctor of Laws, entitled to all the rights, honors, and privileges appertaining thereto.

Any Commencement ceremony that honors an ex-Marine is fine by me. By the way, who writes these citations?

A requirement for the new Williams president should be the ability to say that last line about “appertaining thereto” with a Frank Oakley accent. Graduates of that era will know what I mean . . .

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Clarence Otis ’77 Speech

Clarence Otis Jr., Commencement Address, “Fulfilling Our Leadership Obligation.” Best part:

And, I think about educators who came into my life after Watts — about people like the late Bill Oliver, our Calculus professor my first semester, freshman year, here at Williams. I recall how, as I struggled with the material, Professor Oliver chose to believe my challenges reflected poor preparation, not poor intellect, and so he tutored me one on one after every class for the entire semester. Yet, what struck me most, the most important statement Professor Oliver made about the legitimacy of my presence at Williams was not the tutoring; it was when he had me over to his home for Thanksgiving dinner that year.

Do any readers have memories of Professor Oliver to share? I was sad that this speech did not include a description of how Otis came to Williams and a shout-out to Buster Grossman ’56.

As the leading proponent of having alumni, like Otis, give the Commencement speech, I was, overall, disappointed by this effort. With the exception of the paragraph I quoted, there was almost nothing that was Williams-specific. But reading it and being there are two different things. How was it received in person?

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Peter Nurnberg ’09 Speech

Peter S. Nurnberg, Valedictorian, “It Takes a College.” I liked this part:

Examples of the help we received are all around us.

In the Fall of our freshman year, I remember dozens of you sitting with me every Thursday night in the math and science resource center as the class tutor, Todd Shayler — who one of my entrymates still incorrectly insists was the actor who played Stiffler in American Pie — unlocked the mysteries we needed to understand in order to solve Professor Adams’ Multivariable Calculus problem sets.

I have had the pleasure of buying Shayler lunch a couple of time and trying to share some words of wisdom about life in finance. At the time, I thought of this as part of my usual efforts to give advice to Ephs several years behind me in their finance careers. But now I can think of it as payback for Shaylor’s efforts with Nurnberg and his classmates.

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Jeff Kaplan ’09 Speech

Jeffrey I. Kaplan, Phi Beta Kappa Speaker, “The Solution to the Economic Crisis.”

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Aroop Mukharji ’09 Speech

Aroop Mukharji, Class Speaker, “Advice From My Father, or, the Audacity of Alumdom”

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Anne Garrels Speech

Baccalaureate Address by Anne Garrels. I was struck by this passage.

I did not end up having my own children — not because I couldn’t but because I married the love of my life relatively late. My husband was older than I and already had children. He didn’t want more. It wasn’t an easy decision for me. Some friends said, “Hey, get knocked up, he’ll have to accept it,” but that wasn’t the way we dealt with things and that’s certainly not the way to start a marriage. Life is not what you expect it will be. Not having kids is one reason I ended up staying on the road for so long.

What percentage of Williams graduates have children? Does it differ by gender? Thinking about my own class, it seems like childlessness is much more common among the women than the men, but perhaps that is just my class or my acquaintences or my (faulty) perceptions.

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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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