Helping at last year’s spring convocation, I remember sitting amid the graduating class. Despite the gray sky, the rain-wetted grass, and the family members in ponchos, the Class of 2006 was radiant. The students to my left and right cheered as their classmates took their diplomas. One was hard-pressed to find a graduating senior who wasn’t smiling, laughing, or whispering pleasant jokes or comments to friends while pointing out people on stage. Just like that third bowl of porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it was just right.
But then…bada bing! Bada boom! New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg strutted to the podium! And that was it. Just like Goldilocks’s shock and dismay when the three bears woke her from her “just right” dream in Baby Bear’s “just right” bed, all those smiles and cheers turned into frowns and forced applause—and it wasn’t “just right,” but just wrong.
One of the graduating girls I had escorted to her seat turned to me and said, “This is ridiculous.” To my left and right, the students who had been whispering jokes out of giddiness began whispering jokes out of irritation. Other graduating students looked confused, annoyed, and even offended. The remainder who didn’t look upset were probably indifferent…or maybe from New York.
Last spring marked the first time since 1999 that a non–U of C related speaker addressed the University’s convocation audience. The speaker in 1999 was Bill Clinton, who was at least relevant to the crowd, since he was president of the country (plus, let’s face it, he’s one of the best speakers ever). Unfortunately, Michael Bloomberg’s relevance as a public figure only extends to the borders of New York City. He has absolutely no connection to the city of Chicago, let alone the University.
Unlike at most universities, outside speakers at convocation have been the exceptions to the rule here. The ceremony has generally included a faculty member addressing the crowd. Other than Bloomberg in 2006 and President Clinton in 1999, non-faculty speakers have had a University connection: alumna and former chair of the Washington Post Company Katherine Graham in 1996, and alumnus and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark in 1970. Seldom do graduating classes here get outside speakers, let alone ones who are not only accomplished but also relevant.
If any university is orthodox in its unorthodox ways, it’s this one. And that’s part of what I love about this place. But while we should savor the very U of C tradition of having faculty speakers at convocation, we should also be sure to have outside speakers—just make sure they aren’t as disconnected from the student body as bada bing, bada boom.
The Graduate School of Business usually invites an alum to speak at its convocation, and the College should follow suit. For future classes, the University should seek more Katherine Grahams and Ramsey Clarks to speak. Sure, Jon Stewart would be awesome, and no one would complain about that, but having an awesome time is only part of what convocation is about. It’s also about reflecting on this place we all have in common and looking to the future. Who better to speak on that than someone who has not only been here, but has had an interesting future after having been here? There is a treasure trove of alumni who would be good future speakers. Take Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists Seymour Hersh and David Broder, filmmaker Mike Nichols, New York Times columnist David Brooks, or composer Philip Glass, just to name a few. While the University may not always succeed in securing such names for each spring, I don’t know that it’s trying. Besides, not all of these names have to be as famous as those on the list I offered. There are plenty more accomplished and interesting alums who would say something worth listening to at convocation. While listening to faculty is great, and a huge part of our traditional convocation, a voice from without, yet also from within, would make the occasion “just right.”