April 11, 2011

Moving Past Politicians

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While the choice for the Class of 2011’s convocation speaker breaks away from Cornell’s Democratic norm, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is just another in a long line of politicians to speak on the Hill. While we commend that convocation will depart from the mainstream liberal political ideals that at times categorize campus discourse, the Cornell Convocation Committee must look beyond the political elite if it hopes to attract a speaker whose discourse will have a lasting impact on graduates.

Past speakers have included former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, advisor to President Barack Obama David Plouffe, former President Bill Clinton and famously liberal political pundit James Carville. The political diversity that Giuliani brings to this list is valuable. In Cornell’s 27-year history of hosting guest lecturers for convocation, he will be the first Republican politician to speak. Exposure to both sides of the political spectrum and the fostering of independent opinions is important in college and beyond. On a campus where the vast majority of past speakers have been politically liberal, a conservative voice is a valuable addition.

The logic behind this year’s choice, and politicians brought to campus in years past, is understandable, but the discernible political trend in Cornell’s convocation choices over the past few years is somewhat disheartening. Politicians are recognizable; they spend their careers marketing themselves, giving countless speeches, granting tactful interviews to major media outlets and penning numerous memoirs and autobiographies. Giuliani is no exception. His name is certainly familiar, especially to a generation of Americans shaped by the effects of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the political climate that emerged in their aftermath, but what information will his speech provide that is not already public knowledge? Despite his celebrity, most of what Giuliani will have to say has likely been heard before.

His speech, whether surprisingly novel or predictably mundane, will likely be perfectly adequate. He will talk about his leadership experience after Sept. 11, 2001, his time as NYC mayor and perhaps even nod to his potential presidential run in 2012. But ultimately, his political agenda will temper his discourse. It is improbable that he will say anything groundbreaking that will really encourage students to think critically or change their perceptions in any way.

For these reasons it is necessary that in the future, the Convocation Committee bears in mind that not all fascinating or worthwhile points of view are political ones. Why not invite an artist with a message of creativity, an entrepreneur with a message of perseverance or a researcher with a message of technological innovation? More attention should be paid to the value of what a convocation speaker has to say rather than how well that speaker is known.

The convocation speech is an important and symbolic event for graduating seniors. It is meant to inspire, to provide lasting words of guidance, to encourage Cornellians to use what they have learned in their four years here as they go forth and seize success. Moving forward, we hope that the Convocation Committee will choose speakers whose words and ideals both reflect and cultivate potential in Cornell graduates.