April 17, 2007

Convocation Comm. Reveals Problems Selecting Speaker

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It may come as no surprise that this year’s process for selecting the Convocation speaker, CNN correspondent Soledad O’Brien, did not go well. According to members of the Convocation Committee, however, it was Cornell’s administration that did not meet expectations when it came to finding a speaker.
The event itself, although planned by the seniors’ Convocation Committee each year, requires extensive cooperation from the administration, according to Janine Stanisz ’07, chair of this year’s Convocation Committee. This year, however, Stanisz and Eddy Gumbs ’07, senior class president, believe the administration fell short of the challenge and subsequently forced the committee to cut corners to even find a speaker.
Stanisz and Gumbs cited multiple problems with this year’s process, including that they did not meet at all with President David Skorton until March. Had they met with him much earlier, both parties’ “responsibilities and goals would have been cleared up,” Stanisz said, “and the whole selection process would have run much more smoothly.”
At the start of the year, the committee brainstormed potential speakers and compiled information on each of them in a comprehensive binder. The committee completed this binder in early September and submitted it to Skorton for his review.
The plan was to give him a month and meet with him in person, according to Stanisz and Gumbs, but that October meeting was cancelled and never rescheduled. Instead, Stanisz was told by a member of his office that she could “go ahead with who [they] wanted first.” She took this to mean she could begin the letter-writing process.
Once she completed a letter, usually within a day, she asked for a similar letter from Skorton because he would have “greater impact” than a student. Waiting for Skorton’s letter took up to two or three weeks, according to Gumbs. When they had both letters, the committee would contact the agent of the potential speaker and ask for a response within a period of time. At first, they would be lenient and ask for a response in two or three weeks. As the fall semester rolled by and spring semester began, however, the committee shortened the time to seven to 10 days. They could also only send out one offer at a time, according to Gumbs.
“We are obligated to fulfill the terms of the contract [in the letter] until they say no,” Stanisz said.
According to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president of student and academic services, the fall meeting was cancelled due to a scheduling conflict, but that the meeting was not essential for the committee.
“I don’t know that [a meeting] was needed for them to pursue a speaker,” Murphy said.
Adding to their frustration were mixed messages they received from Skorton’s office, Stanisz and Gumbs said. All communications between the committee and Skorton’s office also went through Jennifer Davis, the committee’s advisor. The committee felt they were operating without clear guidelines from the office; when they offered names of potential speakers, the office would turn many of them down without much explanation. Stanisz added that there were no opportunities to talk about what kind of speaker they were looking for.
According to Murphy, however, only one name mentioned by the committee was turned down, in part because the 2006 committee had solicited the individual and the offer was declined.
Gumbs said, however, that the committee decided “not to consider people running for political office” in an attempt to avoid polarizing Convocation attendees. The committee also felt they had to find a female speaker; in recent years, Cornell’s speakers have all been male.
As of March, the committee had still not met with Skorton. It was not until Stanisz wrote a guest column on the topic of Convocation, appearing in The Sun on March 13, that they finally sat down with him. When asked about the mixed messages, Skorton said he was not involved at all about imparting such restrictions.
“When we finally met with Skorton, he was more supportive of controversial speakers,” Stanisz said. “He was pretty gung-ho about it.”
Nevertheless, Stanisz believes Skorton should be held accountable for what his office says, as it was the only way she could coordinate with the administration. Gumbs felt Skorton could be forgiven for some missteps, since it is “his first year, and he doesn’t know the process.”
“You also can’t start this process a year in advance. No one is willing to commit that early,” Stanisz said.
When told that this year’s Convocation speaker would be O’Brien, many seniors were dissatisfied with the selection; some have claimed the committee did not request input from the senior class. According to Stanisz, however, an e-mail was sent to all seniors, asking for suggestions for speakers, the qualities they were looking for in such a speaker, and if any major connections existed that they could use. She received over 100 responses, but it did not yield any connections.
“I’m very proud of our speaker,” Stanisz said. “She will deliver a good speech, and I’m very confident in that.”
Some seniors had hoped to have a comedian or celebrity, but Stanisz balked at the idea.
“Do you really want to be listening to dirty jokes while sitting next to your grandma?” she asked. “The seniors themselves might be happy, but they frequently forget that their families will be there, too.”
Nevertheless, the committee acknowledged that the administration has increased their support of the senior event. Until recently, the senior class provided the majority of the funding; this year, Cornell is covering funds for using Schoellkopf Stadium, security during the event and all production costs.
But this money does not go toward attracting an appropriate speaker. The committee must work with approximately $30,000 to offer the speaker, taken from the Student Assembly’s student activities fee. On average, speakers of such caliber demand anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 for large-scale events such as Convocation. Additionally, while many other schools offer honorary degrees to such speakers, Cornell’s tradition dictates that no honorary degrees be given.
Some might wonder how the senior class in 2004 managed to get former U.S. President Bill Clinton to speak at Convocation. According to Stanisz, Cornell took advantage of a direct university connection.
“Bill Clinton is the best — and the worst — thing that happened to Convocation,” she said. “People considered no name good enough. … And there’s no one except another former president.”
“It’s a benchmark that’s very hard to fulfill again,” Gumbs added.
Another problem with the process is the fact that Cornell currently considers Convocation separate from the rest of Commencement. If the University were to adopt the event as part of Commencement weekend, it would benefit significantly from Cornell’s contacts and financial support, according to Gumbs and Stanisz.
“They’ve helped quite a bit, but we need much more,” Gumbs said.
Both he and Stanisz emphasized the growing importance of the event to students and said that the administration needs to acknowledge its impact by providing more support.