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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Commencement speaker decision proves divisive

Last year around this time, The Daily Cardinal Editorial Board penned “UW needs to pay commencement speakers.” The column was primarily in response to the announcement University of Wisconsin -Madison Alumnus Carol Bartz was to be the spring 2012 commencement speaker. The editorial board was not optimistic that the former Yahoo and Autodesk’s CEO would deliver a rousing address. Somewhat paradoxically, this year’s announced commencement speaker, Anders Holm, did not have his credentials so stringently examined by this board.

Holm is a 2003 graduate who is famous for co-starring and co-creating the successful Comedy Central show “Workaholics.” Initially, this board worried about the address Holm will provide, given the humor of “Workaholics” is best described as pretty lowbrow. However, the popularity of the show, Holm’s well-crafted public statement and his young age (31) when compared to the past two speakers Pat Richter (71) and Carol Bartz (64) convinced this board of Holm’s viability as a successful commencement speaker.

This board hopes Holm’s commencement address will be funny, laid back and memorable. We expect Holm will provide a solid commencement that will be uniquely tailored to his age, experience and personality. However, the differing levels of satisfaction with Holm’s selection among this board led us to examine the method that ultimately selected the “Workaholics” star.

According to the UW-Madison press release announcing Holm as this spring’s commencement speaker, “Commencement speakers are selected and recommended by senior class officers.” Generally, the senior class officers will take some unofficial polls via social media. But, these democratizing measures do not go as far as they should. These unofficial social media polls’ reach are limited by the senior class officer’s friend groups. It would be near impossible to select four students from UW-Madison whose friends offer a representative slice of the university’s population. When the four people selected all have similar organizational ties, it is clear any unofficial poll’s reach is not representative of what UW-Madison students really want. Although the senior class officers made an interesting choice we hope will lead to a very memorable commencement address, this representative governance is a little short shrift.

The senior class representatives should work harder to democratize the selection of commencement speakers. The senior class representatives could either create a short list of viable candidates and let the senior class vote, or the representatives could take feedback from the senior class in the creation of a short list, from which the senior class representatives would select a speaker.

Unfortunately, choosing a viable candidate is a difficult task. There are three major limitations on viability for possible commencement speakers. UW-Madison does not feature one large commencement, instead the university has five commencements (including one for doctoral and professional degrees) over the course of three days. Commencement addresses are traditionally provided by UW-Madison alumni. And finally, the university does not maintain a budget to pay the speaker. In summation, to be a viable commencement speaker one must be an alumnus who is willing to provide three days of work for free.

Possibly relaxing one or more of these three limitations proved divisive among this board. Paying for a commencement speaker would attract stronger candidates, but this board worries that paying our commencement speaker would cheapen the gravitas of the ceremony. Also, funds for a commencement speaker would need to come from somewhere. Ultimately, this board doesn’t feel nearly as strong about paying speakers as we did one year ago. Relaxing the alumni barrier would open the field to more candidates, but this board was also torn between the value of having an alumnus give the address and possibly strengthening the field by including non-alumni. Finally, the structure of commencement itself would be a logistic nightmare to modify.

Ultimately, choosing a commencement speaker is rife with difficulties, but further democratizing the process will leave everyone more satisfied.

Please send all feedback to opinion@dailycardinal.com. The editorial board consists of seven members of The Daily Cardinal and its opinions represent the views of the paper.

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