March 4, 2004

Clinton to Speak at Convocation

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Former U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton will deliver this year’s convocation address on May 29. While the May ceremony has previously hosted such figures as political strategist James Carville and actor Danny Glover, Clinton is the first U.S. president to speak at a Cornell graduation.

The naming of the 42nd president as convocation speaker came after over eight months of preparation by members of the senior class convocation committee working collaboratively with the University administration. Compiling the list of possible candidates during the spring of last year, Clinton was the first name that came to the group’s mind, according to David Jackson ’04, chair of the 2004 Senior Class Convocation Committee.

“This will be President Clinton’s first visit to the Cornell campus,” said President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, who personally handed the committee’s invitation to Clinton. “I am delighted that he has accepted our students’ invitation, and I look forward to welcoming him to Ithaca.”

After debating and ranking the merits of possible convocation speakers, the committee sent a formal offer to Clinton towards the end of the summer. Knowing that a reply from the former president’s office could take months, members on the committee were relieved when Clinton accepted the invitation in early February.

Committee members also had to prepare invitation letters to 14 other candidates in the case that Clinton declined the invitation according to committee member, Mike Rosenberg ’04.

“We were extremely ready to wait for that long [for a response],” said Esther Tang ’04, Class of 2004 President and member of the committee.

The convocation committee, which consists of members from Class Council, Student Assembly, the Cornell University Program Board, the Student Activity Finance Commission and the Willard Straight Hall Program Board, hopes that high-profile speakers like Clinton will become the norm at Cornell, according to student-elected trustee Funa Maduka ’04, a member of the committee.

Jackson attributes the success of Clinton’s selection to early planning and to strong collaboration and cooperation between committee members and University administrators.

“[Through the administration], we were able to get to the right people,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that one appeal of selecting Clinton was the former commander-in-chief’s heavy interest in global affairs — a theme which Lehman, who will be present to deliver his first presidential commencement address, has emphasized since he came to East Hill last July.

Clinton is no stranger to giving convocation addresses. In past years, he has spoken at the University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Syracuse University among others.

Starting his eight-year-long presidential career in 1992, Clinton was the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term in office. The Arkansas native can lay claim to a variety of accomplishments during his presidency, including the creation of 22 million jobs, providing tax relief for working families and the reduction of crime, poverty and unemployment levels.

Since leaving the White House, Clinton founded the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, focusing on issues such as the treatment of AIDS, reconciliation between ethnic, religious and racial groups and citizen service. Clinton is also a Grammy award recipient — winning in February for his contribution in a recording of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

It is these post-presidential contributions which many, including Jackson, are very excited to hear about. Yet, many of the committee members including Maduka, also pointed to Clinton’s history and background — a story which she considers relevant to many students’ experiences.

“This is a man a man who came from nothing,” Maduka said. “For a lot of students right now, it’s easy to become jaded. But when you see a leader like that, someone who was able to lead and traverse barriers, it gives you a lot of hope. He resonates with students.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao