A resolution brought up at last Sunday’s Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting proposed that the student speaker at commencement be selected through an application process open to all seniors. Historically, the student speaker at commencement has been the senior class president. Additionally, a proposed amendment to this resolution would, if passed, put these changes into effect for this May’s commencement.
The proposed resolution states that a committee, comprised of the senior class officers and a faculty marshal, would choose the speaker from three to five final applicants. The senior class dean will serve in an advisory capacity but have no vote, and members of the committee would be prohibited from applying to speak.
A few students brought the issue to the WSA after discussing and re-evaluating the assumed connection between the roles of senior class president and student commencement speaker over the summer.
“The social aspect of being class president and helping class unity is a separate job from the commencement speaker and representing the class in front of family,” said Zeeba Khalili ’09, one of the students who brought forth the issue. “We talked about how they could be split.”
Benedict Bernstein ’09, chair of the WSA’s Academic Affairs Committee, noted that there is no explicit rule requiring the class president to speak at commencement. Under the current Article on External Standing Committees of the WSA, the bylaws state that the senior class officers are in charge of finding the senior class’s commencement speaker, along with organizing reunions and senior cocktails.
“The senior class president filling the role of commencement speaker is a default,” Bernstein said. “As far as the administration remembers, the senior class president [has given the commencement speech] but there is no codification of that.”
While the resolution that was proposed on Sunday states that the committee will meet in the spring of 2010, a proposed amendment would make the resolution effective this year. Other amendments deal with the content of the speech. The resolution, as is, requires the committee to seek responses from the senior class to the question, “What has your Wesleyan experience meant to you?” The amendment would additionally ask for outlines of the proposed commencement speech. A separate amendment also calls for the speech to be given in front of the committee.
The prospect of changing the selection process for student commencement speaker this year has sparked controversy among members of the student body. According to Senior Class President Ravid Chowdhury ’09, the Class of 2009 voted him to be senior class president knowing that the role entails speaking at graduation.
“The issue here is about having a voice and the class being represented and I’ve been voted into that position by a popular vote,” Chowdhury said. “Forming a committee instead of letting the students decide through a vote is an attack on the judgment of the Wesleyan student body as a whole.”
Chowdhury adds that speaking at commencement both keeps with long-held University tradition and is part of a larger connection he has, and will continue to have, with the Class of 2009.
“I talked to previous class presidents and they see where the University is coming from,” Chowdhury said. “But the senior class president is still representative of the class. For the next 60 years, I’m responsible for continuing to represent and stay in touch with the class. And now there’s a chance that I can’t speak.”
Having only recently become aware of the resolution, Chowdhury has begun to compile a petition against it. He gathered nearly 100 signatures after one day of petitioning around campus, and claims to have only encountered a small number in support of the resolution.
“We have a perfectly good tradition,” said Christian Skorik ’09. “We elected him class president and that came with the understanding that he would speak. He has fundamentally earned the right to speak because he was elected.”
According to Bernstein, the administration fully backs the resolution and students have been open to the idea as well.
“In conversations with seniors, people have been very receptive and want to see this change,” Bernstein said. “There are people who might not run for senior class president that nevertheless can speak for the graduating class better than the senior class president. The general reception has been very positive.”
The resolution will be voted on by the WSA this upcoming Sunday. Bernstein expects the WSA to pass the resolution itself, but remains unsure of the amendments’ likelihood of approval.