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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Selection process for graduation speakers draws criticism

In the weeks leading up to former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz’s speech at commencement, senior class officials and the university have disagreed over the process for selecting future commencement speakers.

The University Committee, made up of six professors and with the help of senior class officials, selects commencement speakers from a pool of notable UW-Madison alumni and local figures.

Senior Class President Steven Olikara said this selection process allows the university to obtain speakers without paying them an honorarium, because speakers want to give back to their alma mater. But according to Olikara, this policy needs to change.

He said the university could attract speakers outside of UW alumni if it offered monetary compensation.

While Olikara said he recognizes UW has prestigious alumni, he said expanding speaker options beyond alumni could help attract a wider range of world-renowned speakers who would bring the university national attention.  He added most schools in the Big Ten offer honorarium to commencement speakers, and UW is “falling behind.”

“We are in fact, a globally competitive university and we ought to reflect that in graduation activities to create a memorable send off for the graduating class,” Olikara said.

But Secretary of the Faculty David Musolf said paying commencement speakers is not part of UW culture, and the university can attract excellent speakers without a monetary incentive.

Musolf pointed to Bartz, a UW-Madison alumna, as a prominent individual who will keep ties to the campus community.

“We like to have people who have a connection to the state or to the university,” Musolf said. “I say without exception that the people I call and invite are honored by the invitation.”

Consistent with his wish for speaker honorarium, Olikara said senior class officials helped create a fund to pay commencement speakers.  But after the University Committee declined to change its policy, senior class officials created Senior Day to help promote UW on a national level.  Well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson will speak at that event May 10.

Olikara also criticized the selection process as a whole, saying the University Committee does not include students.  But Musolf said the committee works closely with senior class officers who develop a list of potential speakers.  Musolf said he and the chancellor discuss the list and then choose the commencement speaker.

But Olikara said the chancellor should take a more direct approach in helping select the commencement speaker.

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“It shouldn’t just stay to the Secretary of the Faculty’s office,” Olikara said.  “We need to make this a campus priority.”

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