Friday, November 16

Searching for a speech


When the Boston Globe ran a photograph last month of Boston
College graduates snoozing through their commencement speech,
university outcry compelled the paper to apologize. It did, saying
the decision was “inappropriate” and misrepresented the
reality of the ceremony.

The speaker? Tim Russert, of NBC’s “Meet the
Press.”

A fixture of the college commencement, featured speakers often
tend toward the sentimental ““ and the soporific. Some
universities begin courting them months in advance, spend thousands
of dollars to reel them in, and often issue honorary degrees as
compensation.

Finding speakers is a calculated effort, an exercise in politics
as much as in predicting the value of their end-of-year message. At
UCLA, commencement speakers for The College ““ the largest
ceremony ““ must have graduated from the university to be
allowed to speak.

The restriction rules out many high-profile, highly sought-after
names in the political and entertainment circles ““ Secretary
of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice,
Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily
Show”Â and “Nightline’s” Ted Koppel
among them.

The tradition, respected since June 2002 when the four division
ceremonies were collapsed into a single College commencement, was
initiated by then-College Provost Brian Copenhaver with the
intention of involving the Alumni Association.

The first year, it was Dov Seidman, CEO of a legal research
office. In 2003, it was L.A. County Supervisor Zev
Yaroslavsky. This year, Oscar-nominated producer Frank Marshall
““ of “The Sixth Sense,” “Seabiscuit”
and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” fame ““ will speak
at The College ceremony.

And at least a few soon-to-be graduates are wondering,
“Who?”

A trio of undergraduate film junkies studying in the Franklin D.
Murphy Sculpture Garden on Thursday said the name wasn’t
familiar, but recognized him after being reminded of his
filmography. Jordan Clarke, a third-year English student carrying a
soccer ball by Pauley Pavilion, said he couldn’t think of who
the soccer field at Drake Stadium was named after (Frank W.
Marshall).

While different universities involve their student bodies in the
speaker selection process to varying degrees, UCLA does not have a
formal method for students to give their input.

The university has not entertained student participation in the
selection process since the 1980s because the university begins its
search a year in advance, and student involvement is therefore
“very inefficient,” says John Sandbrook, an assistant
provost in The College.

UC Berkeley leaves the decision entirely up to a student group
run through the Alumni Association, which solicits student input
and this year invited Koppel to speak.

A spokeswoman from Loyola Marymount said there “can be
student involvement,” but that the final decision is left to
the university’s president. This year, he invited actress
Goldie Hawn. The same goes for USC, whose president selected
Arizona Senator John McCain.

USC issued McCain an honorary degree at its ceremony in May,
another popular ritual UCLA does not participate in. The University
of California regents voted in 1972 to prohibit the university
system from issuing honorary degrees. Comedian and perennial
commencement speaker Bill Cosby has collected dozens; comedian Bob
Hope had 54 when he died in July 2003.

The closest UCLA gets to issuing honorary degrees is the UCLA
medal, which this year will be given to Walt Disney chairman and
former senator George Mitchell, as well as to businessman George
Aratani, who endowed a chair at the Asian American Studies Center
in February.

Two years ago, students in the Graduate School of Education and
Information Studies protested Dean Aimee Dorr’s invitation to
first lady ““ and librarian and teacher ““ Laura Bush on
the basis of having shaky credentials. Bush later declined to
speak.

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