Who is it? Have you found someone yet? When are you going to announce who the Convocation speaker is?
These are the questions that have surrounded me for almost a year during my tenure as the 2009 Convocation chair.
In the bars.
When I’m standing at the restroom sink in the Straight.
I cannot avoid this constant nagging over the identity of the 2009 Convocation speaker. And it’s getting really annoying.
Well, friends. The time has come and I will be announcing the Convocation speaker in the short term. Long gone will be the days of me trying to spread rumors that the speaker is Kermit the Frog, former disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich or Matthew Fox of Lost. (Columbia actually had Fox two years ago. Boom. Roasted.)
This year, the Convocation committee sought an individual who has significantly shaped the society that Cornell has prepared us to enter. We looked for someone who had an important impact on politics, business and history. We sought someone who was current in the news and had the potential to make an even bigger impact in government, philanthropy and world affairs.
The Convocation committee sought an individual who valued and respected the education that we have received from Cornell University. We sought someone who, although political, would not shove their political beliefs down our throats. Our speaker needed to recognize the value of diverse opinions and could somehow relate to all of them.
We sought a speaker who would bestow advice on us during such a pivotal moment in our lives. The advice needs to be relevant, realistic and helpful for our graduates. The speaker needs to disseminate a message of hard work, determination and worldly advice.
Even before the process of searching for a Convocation speaker begins, every Convocation committee has a set of inherent challenges that they must overcome. When the community realizes the challenges that we have overcome, I think everyone will be excited with the eventual outcome of our search.
1. The Convocation speaker is invited to speak at Convocation — not Commencement. Unlike most colleges in the United States, world-renowned speakers address Cornell seniors several days before graduation. For many (perhaps egotistical) speakers, this is an issue as they would prefer the additional publicity and prestige associated with speaking at graduation. At Cornell, as has been tradition, the University president delivers the Commencement address on the day of graduation.
2. Convocation occurs on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. This is an issue because a lot of our prospective speakers might be politicians, or quite erratically, have plans on Memorial Day weekend (how dare they!). It is sometimes very difficult to schedule someone to give up 1/3 (or more) of their Memorial Day weekend, especially if they have already made plans to spoon caviar with Richard Branson on the French Riviera.
3. Cornell does not offer honorary degrees. Now you might be thinking this isn’t a big deal, but for some, it is. “I demand an honorary doctorate from Cornell.”
Sorry, friend. You ain’t getting one.
In fact, according to the apostle of Cornell history, Corey Ryan Earle ’07, only two people in the history of the University have been awarded honorary degrees: Andrew Dickson White, our first president, and David Starr Jordan, a Cornellian and Stanford’s first president. Says Earle, “Cornell president Charles Kendall Adams presented the idea to the trustees on the day before commencement, forcing them to immediately make the decisioan whether to vote in favor of honorary degrees or potentially insult the proposed recipients. To the dismay of alumni, the honorary degrees were granted the next day, and this disagreement was one of many that eventually led to the resignation of President Adams.”
Instead of a degree, Convocation speakers receive the Cornell Medallion, as well as the obvious honor of being chosen to speak.
4. Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere, in case you didn’t realize it. It’s not the easiest place to get to, which means that it is difficult for large private aircraft, buses or limousines to get here (without flying on a small, private plane). Since we’re so far away from a major airport, it’s tough to attract international speakers because of the difficulty in flying here directly.
For example, it’s a lot easier to fly from London to JFK (Yale, Columbia), Philadelphia (Penn), or Newark (Princeton), than it is to fly to Ithaca. (Not so great anymore, are you Princeton? Boom. Roasted.)
I’m glad to say that we were able to deal with many of these challenges and am sure that our speaker that will be on the top of everyone’s list. Your parents, family and friends will hopefully enjoy what should be a really amazing speech.
On behalf of the Convocation committee, I hope you will join us for Convocation on May 23, and I hope you’ll enjoy the program that is in store. I am sure it will be a most memorable occasion.