Special Feature: Commencement 2013

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A High-level Search for the Best

How Northwestern selects its commencement speaker

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June 19, 2013 | by Brendan Cosgrove
President Morton Schapiro and Mikhail Baryshnikov
President Morton Schapiro (right) and Mikhail Baryshnikov walk off Ryan Field at the conclusion of Northwestern's 155th commencement. Photo by Jim Prisching

EVANSTON, Ill. --- George Schultz, Robert Redford, Bill Cosby, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tom Brokaw, Stephen Colbert, Barack Obama and, this year, Mikhail Baryshnikov. These accomplished people and many others have shared their wisdom with Northwestern University’s graduating classes over the years as commencement speakers.

It’s a high-profile engagement that doesn’t go to just anybody, and there is a high-level process for choosing these luminaries.

“The tradition at Northwestern is that the president selects the commencement speaker,” said Jake Julia, associate vice president and associate provost for academic initiatives, whose office helps coordinate the speaker, honorary degree recipients and other special guests at commencement.

“President (Morton) Schapiro takes that role very seriously,” he added. “There is consultation with a variety of people. It’s an informal process, but he doesn’t say ‘Boom, this is my choice.’ It’s more like, ‘I’m thinking about this person. What do you think?’”

And even though this year’s ceremony has yet to take place, the process of selecting the speaker for the Class of 2014 is already underway. Schapiro talks with students, faculty, trustees, senior administration and other members of the University community throughout the year to gather input on possible selections.

A Behind-the-Scenes Search for Excellence

“Sometimes there are issues of logistics,” Julia said. “There may be great ideas, but the person may not be available on our commencement date. We’ll do some preliminary work with him to see if someone he is thinking about might be available.”

It is Northwestern tradition that the commencement speaker also be awarded an honorary degree from the University. So after the president makes a selection and availability is confirmed, the speaker’s name is forwarded to the University’s honorary degree committee for review and on to the faculty senate and the executive committee of the Board of Trustees for approval.

“Northwestern represents such a wide array of disciplines, so we try to get someone who will resonate with the students who are graduating,” said Marianna Kepka, assistant provost for academic administration and the University point person with commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.

“I think accomplishment and excellence are criteria that are very important from President Schapiro’s standpoint,” Julia said. “Who out there really represents Northwestern’s ideals in terms of what they’ve done and how they’ve done it?”

“President Schapiro really wants to recognize our alumni,” Kepka noted. “You saw that in recent years with Stephen Colbert and Michael Wilbon. It’s not always possible as there are limitations, but that’s also a focus.”

Honorary Degrees: A Lot of Moving Pieces

For Julia and Kepka, the process doesn’t stop with approval of the speaker. There are hotels to book and transportation to arrange and dinners and receptions to plan, not only for the commencement speaker, but for other honorary degree recipients and special guests as well. Their office has a staff of three working on commencement-related issues almost full time, working closely with partners and colleagues in many other University departments under coordination from the Division of Student Affairs, which is responsible for the ceremony’s overall planning and execution.

“There are a lot of moving pieces,” Julia said. “On any given year, our honorary degree recipients are coming from all over the world. They’re busy people. Working out the logistics, helping them to connect, making sure that when they are here they have a good experience and making sure that all those moving pieces actually fit and work together I think is the biggest challenge.”

And sometimes making those moving pieces fit can be more of a challenge than others. Julia and Kepka recount the story of an honorary degree recipient flying in from not far away. His plane was on time, but he got stuck in traffic between O’Hare airport and Evanston.

“As the last of the platform party was going up the steps, he came running into the stadium,” Julia said.

“He was literally getting out of the car and we were putting his gown on him,” Kepka recalls. “He was a great sport about it!”

Organizing Commencement: Tremendously Rewarding

In the end, despite the logistical challenges, Julia and Kepka find that their roles are only a small part of what they call a “total team effort” in putting on commencement. There are hundreds of Northwestern staff, faculty and others involved with planning and executing the weekend's activities.

Julia and Kepka find the entire experience to be tremendously rewarding.

“Being able to look and see the students, the parents and how excited they are -- I find that very rewarding,” said Julia. “You see faculty and trustees -- everyone being very positive about everything going on.”

President Schapiro also makes it a point to emphasize the importance of recognizing those who have helped get the students to where they are today: parents, family, friends, their Northwestern professors, high school teachers and many more.

“I just love connecting with the people individually,” said Kepka, referring to the honorees and special guests she helps welcome. “We’ve spent months where they are just a name on a piece of paper or an e-mail, and then you get to meet them. They’re fabulous individuals and always so down to Earth. I’m always struck by that.”

“We have a really strong commitment to both our undergraduate and graduate students, and this is a day on which these people who have invested all of the time -- and, frankly, all the tuition dollars and energy -- really should be recognized,” Julia said. “They deserve a good event and an event that goes smoothly. I’m pleased that we spend the time on this event for that reason as much as anything.”