Editorial: Students should have ability to choose commencement speaker

It’s that time of year again—spring quarter is coming to a close and commencement is only a few weeks away. Soon students will sit alongside their peers under the Riverside sun in one of their last days as UCR undergraduates. But commencement is much more than just a ceremony to receive your diploma. It’s one of the last impressions a university leaves on its students, and every year each of the seven distinguished speakers play a huge role in inspiring students and sending them off into the world with a memorable final experience at UCR.

In an effort to strengthen school spirit, develop cohesiveness and bolster a sense of community among students, we at the Highlander Editorial Board have come up with a proposal designed for students of each graduating class to select their commencement keynote speaker. This would be a great opportunity for the UCR community to come together and make commencement special and unique to each class.

We are in no way insinuating that any of UCR’s commencement speakers have been subpar. On the contrary, UCR has attracted numerous well-known and respected individuals from the likes of Professor of Anthropology Yolanda T. Moses in 2004 to Professor of Creating Writing Chris Abani and Chancellor Emeritus of UCLA Charles E. Young for 2012.

But it is important that UCR students have the ability to choose their own speakers. A concerted effort by a graduating class of seniors to find a renowned speaker can be as memorable as the speech itself, and it would be a great way for people to work together on a meaningful project to finish off the school year with a bang. At commencement, students are recognized for their accomplishments at the university, and how better than to feature a speaker brought to campus through the collective work of those students?

As of now, the deans of each college choose the speakers. While the deans receive suggestions from other campus sources, they ultimately make the final decisions. It is also important to note that the Office of Event Management and Protocol is prohibited from paying speakers to come to campus, and deans are also discouraged from doing so. So it is completely feasible for a student-led committee to work with the deans in recruiting a speaker.

Seeking famous speakers is by no means a shallow concern. Big names like Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famed astrophysicist and world-renowned science orator who spoke at the University of Wisconsin-Madison inaugural Senior Day earlier this month, would draw attention to the school. Students raised the necessary funds to bring Tyson to campus, and generated a significant media buzz thanks to their success. Many major media organizations follow top commencement speakers across the nation, and if UCR were to land on the list it could boost the university’s already increasing notoriety.

It could also cost students and the university very little to bring big-name speakers to campus. Students could form a committee in charge of polling the student population on who the speaker should be and then reaching out to them. The committee could also be responsible for fundraising efforts, like donation campaigns. Although the task may seem daunting, UCR students are more than up to the challenge.

Even the University of California is no stranger to student-organized commencement events. In 2009 Michelle Obama spoke at UC Merced’s first commencement ceremony as a result of a massive student-led campaign, which included letters sent to

her office, friends and family, and a Facebook campaign that shipped off over 900 Valentine’s Day cards to her.  If Merced can do it, there is no reason we can’t either.

However, since UCR’s commencement is split up into seven different ceremonies corresponding to the different colleges, it is unlikely that a single guest speaker would attend all of the ceremonies. So perhaps the university could host a general commencement at the Riverside Convention Center before individual ceremonies took place. While this could incur an additional cost, housing UCR’s entire graduating class under one roof to listen to an internationally recognized keynote speaker brought to Riverside as a result of students’ hard work and persistence is well worth the extra cost.

Commencement is a ceremony for students. It’s an event to celebrate UCR students’ achievements and reward them as they cross the finish line. Working together to bring a big-name speaker to UCR would be a rewarding and well-deserved experience that’s special to each graduating class of seniors.

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