With the acceptance of her invitation to speak at Convocation this year, Nancy Pelosi will join the ranks of seven other prominent government and political figures who have given Cornell’s Convocation address since 2001. The list, which includes Bill Clinton in 2004 and David Plouffe in 2009, represents a departure from Convocation speakers of previous decades, when alumni and non-political speakers were featured more often.
While Maya Angelou, former poet laureate of the U.S., newscaster Soledad O’Brien and Danny Glover, actor and human rights activist, broke up the 10 year long list of political speakers, the past decade has seen less diversity in the professions of Convocation speakers than previous years.
Between 1984 — when Cornell’s tradition of Convocation speakers began — and 2001, only five of the 16 Convocation speakers had political affiliations. In 1984, Cornell’s first Convocation speaker was Austin H. Kiplinger ’39, a distinguished journalist. In subsequent years, Convocation showcased speakers representing a wide range of disciplines and professions: Dr. Joyce Brothers ’47, psychologist and advice columnist, in 1988; Dr. Mae Jenninson, M.D., ’81, astronaut, in 1994; Robert Kennedy, Jr., environmental lawyer, in 1996; and Samuel Berger ’67, national security advisor, in 1999.
In addition to coming from diverse professions, many past Convocation speakers were also alumni. Half of the speakers from 1984 to 2000 were former Cornellians. Since 2001, however, no alumni have spoken at Convocation.
According to Heather Levy ’10, head of the 2010 Convocation Committee, these changes occurred after the University provided the independent student-run Convocation with more support.
“They helped us with the production costs, such as those of erecting a stage and lining up chairs. The Convocation Committee has received more support from the University, but not necessarily [just] financial support,” Levy said.
With more money at its disposal, the Convocation Committee is able to accommodate bigger crowds and hold Convocation at a larger scale. In the last seven to eight years, Cornell’s President and his senior staff assisted with inviting speakers and producing the event. In that way, the University helped transform a small student supplemental program into a major University event, Levy said.
“By packaging the two together, the University helped to legitimize the Convocation. Rather than a speaking engagement, the invited speakers will view Convocation as an address to a graduating class in a prestigious college. It definitely appears more appealing to the speakers,” Levy said. “Before the Committee received support from the University, the Committee used to have less financial support, relied heavily on alumni connections. That’s probably why we had more alumni speakers before [and not as many in recent years].”
The Convocation Committee is now able to use the University’s alumni connections, which allow them to reach the speakers when the committee plans the speakers’ invitations.
“The alumni connections are definitely a great resource for us to get the speaker we want,” Levy said. “As for choosing the speaker, the speaker is really up to the choice of the senior class and the committee each year. That’s what’s so cool about Convocation. It is truly an event that belongs to the seniors. The graduating students own the program.”
Corey Earle ’07, associate director of student programs in the Office of Alumni Affairs, said he believes in taking advantage of the impressive accomplishments of Cornell’s graduates by inviting alumni to speak at Convocation.
“I think we focus too much on celebrity. Celebrities aren’t the only people who can offer valuable advice or words of wisdom. Convocation is an outstanding opportunity for Cornell to recognize one of its thousands of inspirational alumni who are changing the world in so many different ways,” Earle said. “Alumni and faculty have an insight into our alma mater and a relevance that the average celebrity can’t provide.”
According to C.J. Slicklen ’09, head of the Convocation Committee in 2009, fame is not the Committee’s priority when it evaluates its candidates, but there are still advantages to choosing famous speakers.
“We don’t set out to find a celebrity. We set out to find someone who may have overcome great obstacles, or has demonstrated a great work ethic. Sometimes, these people happen to be famous. There is nothing wrong with big names,” Slicklen said. “Attracting a big name brings publicity to Cornell, exposes the celebrity to the great things we have to offer at the University, and provides seniors and their families with the opportunity to hear from a well-known, well-respected individual.”
Slicklen, however, is also a proponent of Columbia University’s policy of bringing alumni for its Convocation. “I think [Earle’s] idea of having influential [alumni] or a professor is a good one,” he said.
Speakers who do not have a pre-existing connection to the University can add value to their appearance at Cornell in other ways.
“Although [Angelou] was not an alum of Cornell, she picked only a very small number of schools to speak at in 2008, and Cornell was one of her choices because of the prestige of our University and her favorable opinion [of Cornell],” Rohan Thakkar ’08, head of the Convocation Committee of 2008 said. “To me, that proved that she had a special connection with Cornell, and alum or not, we anticipated she would be perfect.”
Given the significance of Convocation for students on campus, both positive and negative reactions appear each year following the Committee’s announcement of the speaker.
“No matter who we end up inviting, there will always be criticisms,” Levy said. “But we learn from what [the Committee] has tried and done.”
“Finding a speaker is a challenging task: we’re in Ithaca, N.Y., Convocation is on Memorial Day weekend, the speaker isn’t actually speaking at graduation, and the speaker isn’t getting an honorary degree,” Slicklen said. “All of these things come into play.”
Original Author: Jackie Lam