Friday, November 15

Ara Shirinian: Students need a voice in commencement speaker decisions


(Kimberly Ann Striegel/Daily Bruin)

(Kimberly Ann Striegel/Daily Bruin)


At this year’s graduation ceremony, the class of 2015 will get the chance to learn an important lesson: In the real world, success is measured in bills, not principles.

The keynote speaker for UCLA’s commencement ceremony has just been announced as Nathan Myhrvold. He is the cofounder of Intellectual Ventures, the worlds biggest “patent troll,” a company that exploits the loopholes in the patent-granting system by collecting patents and suing other companies, both big and small, hoping to get a piece of their revenue.

This choice sends a mediocre farewell message to our graduating class by showing that financial success is enough reason to ignore the deep tradition of progressive leadership that the University of California has long stood for, and that companies like Intellectual Ventures directly insult.

To ensure that future commencement speakers better represent the values of the student body and the university, students – the people the commencement speaker is ultimately supposed to be for – should have greater involvement in the nomination and selection process.

An easy place to start is with the elected representatives of the student body: the Undergraduate Students Association Council. The executive offices of USAC particularly should be involved in the process of nominating and selecting the speaker. Including the USAC president, internal vice president and external vice president would provide greater student representation while maintaining a reasonable number of voices in the conversation about the commencement speaker.

Jean-Paul Renaud, the senior director of communications for the UCLA College of Letters and Science, said that the deans of the college make the final decision about the speaker. The only student involvement in the process comes from the two student members of the Faculty Executive Committee, which nominates candidates for speaker. The USAC Academic Affairs commissioner appoints both of these students.

USAC, then, already has some indirect involvement in choosing the speaker. But making the student positions FEC appointed as opposed to elected, and limiting students to only two seats, severely restricts student voice in the nomination and selection process. That’s why the three executive offices of USAC, which are elected by the student body to represent its interests, should be allowed to participate in any FEC hearings pertaining to commencement nomination, and all three should be given a vote in the selection of the speaker as well.

It’s understandable why the current committee thought Myhrvold would be a good choice. He is an extremely accomplished person who has spent time working on gravitational theories with Stephen Hawking, running Microsoft’s two-billion-dollar research budget, writing books on modernist cuisine and digging up dinosaur bones. His peers have described him as a charismatic genius, and he would certainly be able to deliver a good speech.

The problem is that there is more to a commencement speaker than just being able to say motivational words. A speaker needs to embody the values of a university and stand not just for financial success, but social responsibility.

The reality is that Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures is not the company he wants you to think it is. Intellectual Ventures is the world’s most powerful patent troll, “the most hated company in tech.”

Like other patent trolls, Intellectual Ventures does not create any commercial products, and uses vague patents with unoriginal ideas to make a game out of our legal system.

What it does with those patents is sue companies like Motorola, Symantec, Citibank, Canon, AT&T, Toshiba and many more. Even when Intellectual Ventures is not involved in litigation itself, it sells its patents to other patent trolls whose only reason for purchasing the patents is to sue even more companies.

Myhrvold combats the notion that Intellectual Ventures is a patent troll by pointing toward its research arm. Though it’s true that the company conducts research, it has filed only about 3,000 patents, compared to the more than 70,000 it has purchased.

But while Intellectual Ventures makes its money, the rest of the industry suffers. The proof is everywhere; a recent study found that patent trolls have caused a decrease in the amount of venture capital being given to startup companies, which is directly harming our ability to bring new ideas forward.

A massive list of accomplishments and all the charisma in the world won’t be enough to compensate for Myhrvold’s anticompetitive practices. More student involvement in his selection would likely have brought more attention to these facts, and could have resulted in a better nominee.

Student government officials are much more in touch with the student body than administrators are. Giving them a greater say in picking the commencement speaker would ensure a more inclusive, diverse roster of speakers that truly reflects the desires of the student body and the values of the university.

Meanwhile, Myhrvold will soon become another in a long line of white, male commencement speakers who certainly knows how to run a profitable business, but doesn’t mind doing it at the expense of the industry that made him who he is.

The class of 2015 can do much better than that, and they should be given a speaker who can represent the true values of UCLA.

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Alumnus

Ara Shirinian was an assistant opinion editor from 2015-16 and an opinion columnist from 2014-15. He writes about technology, transfer students and Westwood.


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  • RB

    Well said!

  • VyperX

    “He is an extremely accomplished person who has spent time working on gravitational theories with Stephen Hawking, running Microsoft’s two-billion-dollar research budget, writing books on modernist cuisine and digging up dinosaur bones. His peers have described him as a charismatic genius, and he would certainly be able to deliver a good speech.”

    Nah, Myhrvold is scum.