Since the UCLA College of Letters and Science reinstated a college-wide commencement in 2002, the crop of commencement speakers has lacked the diversity that UCLA administration touts as one of the university’s top priorities.
Only four out of 13 were people of color. Seven of the past 13 speakers were white males. Only two were women and neither of those women were people of color.
While the College has picked successful and compelling speakers from a wide range of backgrounds and fields of expertise over the course of its history, the College’s recent choices point to a lack of critical thinking.
It is just as important to give students relatable and diverse role models as it is to give them speakers with impressive academic, professional and personal accomplishments.
The commencement speaker for this year, Nobel laureate Randy Schekman, is a perfect example of a speaker whose professional accomplishments and personal dedication to the public university system make him a compelling pick for the College.
But looking forward, the College should look to combine accomplishment with a greater level of diversity.
Graduation speeches are an avenue for instilling inspiration, hope and a sense of direction into seniors stepping off campus and into a new chapter of their lives.
Providing speakers with a myriad of different personal experiences – shaped by a number of factors, among them gender, race, personal history as well as field of expertise and academic accomplishment – will enable students from all walks of life to see themselves in their commencement speakers.
The committee within the College in charge of picking the commencement speaker would do well to remember this come next year.
In an email statement to The Bruin, the deans of the College said that they are “proud that half of (the) speakers come from underrepresented backgrounds and have broken barriers to reach the pinnacle of their careers.”
The deans are counting the two women who spoke at the 2012 and 2013 commencements, respectively, as a part of the “half.”
It should be noted that until two years ago, there was not a single woman featured on the list of commencement speakers at all. And even now, there is not one woman of color to be found on the list.
These numbers speak to a need for the College to more carefully examine its choices and to think more deeply about what it means to look back on a list of speakers that reflect the diversity of the student body.
“Diversity” is too often a token word thrown around by university administration. Chancellor Gene Block announced a new post for a vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion in December – a position that will remain unfilled for months to come – and recently called on faculty to pass a diversity general education requirement that has failed at UCLA two times in the past 10 years already.
By selecting a more diverse group of commencement speakers, UCLA can demonstrate publicly that it is committed to fostering diversity at every level and in every way, not just in talking about it.