Greta Van Susteren before she got her own show. One of the producers of “Airplane!” The deputy chief of staff to President Bartlet on The West Wing. The black Wizard of Oz. The man who turned his head while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa competed over who could shoot up the most ‘roids.
This sundry of personalities have all stood in front of a crowd of graduating seniors and their families at the Kohl Center. They’re all University of Wisconsin graduates and they were all paid nothing for their appearances. They’re the most notable commencement speakers of the past 15 years, and to say they don’t need an introduction would be an embarrassment to the clich?.
Now let’s try a different list.
Bob Woodruff. Bill Clinton. Robert Pinsky. John Mellencamp. Brian Williams. John McCain. Dan Rather.
Those are some of the big-name speakers that have appeared at commencements at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana University, Penn State and Ohio State over the past 10 years. We found out last week that you can add President Barack Obama to that list — he’s scheduled to give the commencement address in Ann Arbor on May 1.
UW has never been able to get a speaker nearly as big as some of these other schools — and while Scott Van Pelt may have been appropriate in 2007, we imagine that hearing a speech from the former “main proprietor” of L’Etoile or the founder of the organization Humorology donates money to would be a pretty lame way to end your college career.
A university is often able to get a big-name speaker through some kind of connection. Maybe they’re an alumnus or they’re a native to the state. Sometimes it just works out — Johns Hopkins got Al Gore in 2005 because a trustee’s wife used to work for him.
But in the end, you usually have to pay them.
Secretary of the faculty David Musolf, who organizes finding the speaker along with support from senior class officials, argues that not paying an honorarium is appropriate because it saves UW money and ensures the speaker has close ties to Madison. But all these ties have gotten UW are people like State Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who bailed the university out of finding somebody else in 1999, 2003 and 2008.
It’s disheartening to us that UW has to pay a big name in order to get them to come to Madison and accept an honorary degree — but we think it’d be even more disheartening to tell our proud grandparents that the speaker at our graduation will be a guy who founded a nonprofit that gives underprivileged children the chance to have a portrait of them painted by a professional artists. Yeah, that was a speaker.
We mean no offense to any of the previous speakers. The transcripts of many of their speeches are on the university’s website and some of them are humorous, rousing and even inspiring. But others not so much.
Wisconsin is supposed to provide one of the finest undergraduate educations in the nation, and the culmination of that deserves a lot more attention than UW seems to give it. Case in point: the speakers for the May 2008 graduation weren’t even announced until 10 days before the ceremony. Come on.
Therefore, we recommend a small increase in segregated fees to pay for an honorarium for the spring commencement each year. A fee of $2 per student per year would garner more than $80,000 a year — more than enough to land a name that will be impressive to all members of the community — and the student body would be OK with paying $8 over four years to ensure a high profile visit.
Doing this will also allow for more students to take part in picking the speaker, something that simply doesn’t happen on a large scale right now. Suggestions could be taken by the Associated Students of Madison, and together with Bascom administrators, they could work out a deal. As opposed to now, when four people, who answer to no one, make the decision.
The only caveat is that getting a paid speaker to do more than one ceremony might be difficult. Making one large commencement (where you don’t read names) at Camp Randall would eliminate this problem and would be in line with what many schools do — including Michigan.
In the meantime, we’ve got some recommendations for May’s speaker. But you didn’t bother to ask any of us, or most students for that matter, so… screw it.