What is a commencement speaker?

Following a petition and student outcry, one CNU student reflects on the values and accomplishments a speaker should have

Over the past week, increasing public dissent has erupted surrounding CNU’s 2019 Commencement Speaker. 

From a student petition with hundreds of signatures to the outcry on social media, the chief reasons cited for disapproving in the University’s choice are the speaker’s inherently religious work and message, her age and lack of qualifications to deliver a commencement speech. I wanted to take a moment, in light of all of this discourse, to speak about what I believe a commencement speaker should be. 

Christopher Newport University is a liberal arts institution. CNU’s mission states that the University is “committed to providing a liberal arts education that stimulates intellectual inquiry and fosters social and civic values.” 

Our vision describes CNU as a “small academically selective public university, is grounded  in the principles of liberal learning and dedicated to the ideals of scholarship, leadership and service,” celebrating the “values inherent in the liberal arts and sciences.” In bold font on the University website, CNU articulates what it desires to be: “preeminent, public liberal arts and sciences university.” 

If the University seeks to hold itself to those values, of being first and foremost an intellectual bastion for excellence, then our commencement speaker should be able to speak to the virtues of a liberal education. 

Commencement is, let us not forget, a celebration of academic achievement. While we value more than just course work at CNU,  though strong dedication to service and civic engagement is also noted in official verbiage and ethos of the University, we walk across that stage on May 11 not due to our extracurricular activities, our religious affiliations, our community engagement, or our other outstanding characteristics. 

The Class of 2019 is perhaps most united by one factor on Commencement day: we satisfied CNU’s criteria for graduation on the basis of our academic achievements. That criteria is rooted in the liberal arts and a school-wide pursuit of academic excellence. 

In my mind, the most appropriate Commencement Speaker is found among our already outstanding faculty. Why not allow the students to nominate and vote on a professor here, at CNU, to speak? 

While other celebrations during commencement week allow the faculty to address the student body—i.e., the PLP and Latin Honors Awards—why not allow the faculty to address the entire student body? 

Are those not invited to special awards sessions perceived to somehow be less intellectual or less capable of understanding an academic message? At a University so prided on its liberal education, to have only a select part of the graduating class appreciative of the faculty’s message would be a failure to uphold the institution’s mission. I’ve heard from students and faculty alike that the Commencement Speaker does not matter, that I will not remember the speech decades from now, that they will always be horrible no matter what, or that even if I am bothered by the choice, I should just accept it and move on. 

But Christopher Newport University did not train this heart and mind to accept passivity in favor of diligence. 

The Class of 2019 has worked tirelessly over the past four years. Our paths were different, and our internalization of the University’s values will vary. But at the end of the day, Commencement is a celebration of all of us. The achievement is mammoth and greater than I think we yet realize. Why had we ought to accept that the last address to all of us, as a class, may be unfulfilling? 

I’ve heard many administrators and faculty alike proudly declare that CNU is a “special place.” The American Council of Trustees and Alumni certainly thinks so—CNU is the only public university to receive a perfect “A” based on ACTA’s evaluation of our liberal arts core curriculum. I interned at ACTA over this past summer and felt so incredibly lucky to attend a university that boldly has gone against the trend of most schools—including the Ivy League, I might add—that prioritize simple job preparation over a holistic and enlightening academic experience. After reviewing hundreds of other universities on the basis of their core courses and general intellectual culture, I realized that being a CNU student does not even offer a full view of how special this place is. Being small, being new, and having the opportunity to forge our own path has allowed this University to provide, in my opinion, one of the best liberal arts experiences in the country. 

If CNU was bold enough to achieve such heights, to strive to be different from the norm, to prioritize student experience over administrative bloat and academics over a consumer-product model of education, then why should we succumb to devaluing the day that most directly acknowledges not only the achievements of the graduating class, but the University as a whole? Even if other universities bring in sensationalized and academically irrelevant speakers—from actors and pop-stars to success stories who lack a four-year degree—why should we allow ourselves to stoop to that standard? 

I imagine that the University had the best of intentions when they asked Ms. Scheuble to speak. I can see the logic: she’s their age, she’s energetic, they can relate to her. But I suspect that if the University had polled its own students, they would have been surprised by our truest desires. I believe that the speaker had ought to be somehow tied to academia or have decades of public service that makes them truly capable of speaking to the University’s hearty values, but I do only speak for my one perspective. If the University would like to honor the Class of 2019, and perhaps at this time, more importantly, the Class of 2020, 2021, 22, 23, and so on, they had ought to actually ask the students what they would like for commencement to be and symbolize. 

If the University cannot trust its graduating class to articulate a vision and select a speaker who upholds its publicly stated educational and civic values, then what has our education been for?

~Rachel Wagner, Staff Writer~


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