How three schools landed their famous commencement speakers

Behind the scenes of graduation planning

Emily Hatton, Staff WriterEmily Hatton, staff writer

Second lady of the United States, co-founder of the Blue Man Group, president of IBM: each will address the class of 2015 in commencement addresses. And although graduation season is just beginning, the planning and prep work to land these speakers kicked off months ago. 

Institutions vary in how they go about choosing speakers and what they look for in someone to deliver the message. While some put the decision in the hands of the president, others involve several committees before finally extending an invite.

A lucky encounter

At Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in North Carolina, where Jill Biden will be speaking on May 14, the process began last summer when President Tony Zeiss traveled to Switzerland to speak at a conference on workforce development and training. Biden was slated to address the attendees, and the two got to talking about her possibly coming to CPCC's commencement, says Jeff Lowrance, assistant to the president and public information officer.

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"We're always looking for someone who can deliver a message that could touch our graduates, be of value to them and to their family," says Lowrance.

In January, CPCC officials confirmed with Biden's office they were inviting her to speak were able to work out the scheduling.

"We think she is uniquely qualified to come and be a speaker...because she is a full-time community college instructor, and has been for a number of years," Lowrance says. "But she also brings a national perspective to the value of community colleges."

This year is a bit different than most, Lowrance says. For one thing, "we've never had to talk with the secret service like we are this year," and the process usually begins just five or six months in advance.

It always starts with a discussion among the president and college cabinet members, who source recommendations from their departments, he says, but typically not as much advanced notice is needed to secure someone.

Giving everyone a say

The president also makes the decision at Northwestern University (NU), where this year a member of the board of trustees will address students: Virginia Rometty, president, CEO, and chairperson of IBM. (Note: The reporter for this story is an NU alumna.)

However, to be awarded an honorary degree the speaker must go through an approval process involving multiple layers, says Marianna Kepka, assistant provost for academic administration.

An email in late spring solicits honorary degree recommendations from faculty for the following year. In the fall, a committee of senior faculty members serving three-year terms trim down the pool and send it to the faculty senate, where it is rejected or approved and passed to the executive committee of the board of trustees. 

Often, a speaker is identified over the summer and the school reaches out to make sure he or she is available before adding them to the slate.

"Honorary degrees are meant to really honor the best and brightest in the field, so we're looking for really exceptional individuals," Kepka says.

Recently, spotlighting people "who bring a broad array of diverse accomplishment" has also been a priority, Kepka says.

Rometty is "a fabulous alum" with a computer science degree from NU's McCormick School of Engineering, Kepka says. Her speaking highlights not only NU's commitment to supporting women in STEM fields, but also Rometty's "specific contributions to the world of science and to the world of business," Kepka says.

Leveraging the social network

A multi-layered approach takes place at Clark University as well. In May or June, an email goes out to board members, alumni, faculty, and staff soliciting nominations for honorary degree recipients.

"Commencement is, in the words of President David Angel, the students' day," says Davis Baird, provost and VP for academic affairs. "We want someone who will in a meaningful way speak to the students."

Baird and the VP for marketing and communications staff a committee of three faculty and three board of trustee members, who all approve, reject, or request more information on each nominee in mid-September. Once approved, names move to the full board, where they are rejected or approved and added to an evolving list in mid-October, Baird says.

The president then selects who will receive honorary degrees that year, one of whom is the commencement speaker. Because Angel knows commencement speaker, alumnus, and co-founder of Blue Man Group Matt Goldman personally, he extended the invite following the approval process, Baird says.

"Matt Goldman we think is a great Clark success story and in a way a particularly Clark success story," Baird says. "He's combined really incredible creativity with the ability to create something very successful...We think he's a great role model for our students and for Clark."

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