The Convocation Committee selects a guest speaker each year to address graduating seniors the day before commencement.

Michael Suguitan / Sun File Photo

The Convocation Committee selects a guest speaker each year to address graduating seniors the day before commencement.

April 14, 2019

Hasan Minhaj ‘Dropped Out’ as Cornell’s Convocation Speaker, Sending a Student Committee Scrambling

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Late on Thursday afternoon, everything was going according to plan.

Cornell Convocation Committee members were excited to reveal at a Student Assembly meeting that comedian Hasan Minhaj would address seniors on graduation weekend. The committee had created a graphic for social media and arranged a party to celebrate the culmination of months of work.

But by 6:30 p.m., the committee’s leadership was scrambling. Minhaj had dropped out, they learned shortly before their planned announcement, and they wanted to keep anyone from knowing.

Charlotte Lefkovitz ’19, the committee chair, told eager attendees that the committee was delaying its announcement out of respect for the seriousness of an S.A. divestment vote that immediately preceded the scheduled unveiling.

“I ultimately felt that right now is not the time, given the emotions,” Lefkovitz said at the close of the public S.A. meeting. She and some other members later wrote similar statements on Facebook.

An email to committee members, sent 15 minutes later and signed by Lefkovitz, gave an additional reason.

“Hasan Minhaj breached contract and is no longer our speaker,” read the message, which reminded recipients that they had signed a confidentiality agreement and warned in an uppercase subject line: “URGENT — EXTREMELY CONFIDENTIAL.”

“The most important thing is that NO ONE CAN KNOW ANYTHING. Neither that he was supposed to be our speaker nor that he has dropped out,” read the message, which was sent to members by Andrew Semmes ’19, the senior class president and a member of the committee.

“I have been lenient with people leaking stuff thus far but if anything gets out no questions asked you will lose membership and privileges,” Lefkovitz continued.

In the committee’s Slack channel, Semmes told members that if anyone asked about the delay, they should say: “It’s been postponed to a better time and place. That discussion was so divisive so we didn’t think it was a good time.”

Comedian Hasan Minhaj, pictured in 2018, was originally scheduled to be Cornell's convocation speaker, according to sources and internal committee communications.

Bryan Derballa / The New York Times

Comedian Hasan Minhaj, pictured in 2018, was originally scheduled to be Cornell’s convocation speaker, according to sources and internal committee communications.

It’s unclear why Minhaj, the host of Netflix’s Patriot Act, pulled out, and his publicist did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

It’s also unclear who will now speak May 25 at senior convocation. The 43-member committee is scheduled to convene Sunday night and members have said they are working diligently to “ensure the best experience for the entire Cornell community.” They have not given a new date to announce a speaker.

In a telephone interview Sunday, Lefkovitz and Semmes said they had not received clearance from Cornell’s legal team to respond to questions about Minhaj’s dropping out. Cornell spokespeople did not provide answers to a list of questions sent on Sunday.

“Unfortunately this isn’t our call given the highly confidential nature of the entire process,” Lefkovitz said.

Interviews with seven committee members, all but one of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to confidentiality agreements, revealed internal disagreements about how the committee handled the unexpected crisis.

All members interviewed said the last-minute cancellation had put committee leaders in a difficult predicament. Some said they thought the committee had misled students about the reason for the postponement by blaming it on the heated S.A. divestment vote. (The resolution, which narrowly failed, urged Cornell to divest from companies profiting from what the resolution described as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.)

Semmes and Lefkovitz said Sunday that the choice to cite the divestment vote was made after receiving “unexpected administrative updates” and quickly speaking with Convocation Committee members on both sides of the divestment vote who had been deeply affected by its contentiousness.

Omar Din ’19, a representative on S.A. and a member of the Convocation Committee, said he thought Lefkovitz was right to withhold the disappointing news that Minhaj had pulled out.

“The community had already sustained a big loss with divestment,” Din, a proponent of the resolution, said in an interview. Lefkovitz, he said, “wanted to be empathetic announcing another setback. I have full respect for that decision, and think that it takes so much compassion for her to have recognized that.”

Omar Din '19, center, a representative on Student Assembly and member of the Convocation Committee, speaks in favor of the divestment resolution at a meeting on Thursday.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Omar Din ’19, center, a representative on Student Assembly and member of the Convocation Committee, speaks in favor of the divestment resolution at a meeting on Thursday.

Lefkovitz said she could not discuss the agenda for the committee’s Sunday meeting, but that she is looking forward to addressing any concerns members have.

“It will be an important time to touch base and I’m very happy to speak about the overall process and the attempts I’ve made to make it an inclusive and open environment where people could air what they’re feeling,” she said. “Something I think we all as a committee are proud of is we strove to make it as inclusive a process as possible.”

The unexpected task of having to find another convocation speaker — amid leaks to The Sun and heading into a week during which many students have exams — has frustrated some members who thought the only potential for controversy, if there was any, would be the committee’s actual speaker selection.

After The Sun reported early Friday, citing two unnamed sources, that the committee had planned to name Minhaj as convocation speaker, seven Convocation Committee members — including Lefkovitz, Semmes and the undergraduate trustee Dustin Liu ’19 — wrote a letter to The Sun decrying what they called the newspaper’s “journalistic harassment and derisive spirit.”

They said the newspaper was “acting in opposition to the Class of 2019 Convocation Committee” and that reporters had harassed members by calling and texting them after midnight. The letter’s authors also argued that publishing confidential information could hinder the committee’s efforts and “takes away from the celebratory nature of the speaker reveal.” Editor in Chief Anu Subramaniam ’20 declined to comment on the letter.

The Convocation Committee solicited 1200 names from members during weeks of discussions and created a ranked list of 25 top names, which they shared with the administration and Board of Trustees. Lefkovitz said the committee sought a speaker who was successful through hard work, as well as charismatic, relatable and unifying.

Meredith Liu ’20, Dylan McDevitt ’19, Maryam Zafar ’21 and Nicole Zhu ’21 contributed reporting to this article.