Committee works to select Lehigh’s sesquicentennial commencement speaker


The 2015 commencement speaker has been selected, and now it is time to start preparing for the celebratory year of Lehigh’s sesquicentennial – the 150th year.

Commencement is an important part of university life where a prominent guest is invited each year to speak to the graduating class and academic community.

“This individual should reflect the goals and values of Lehigh University,” according to Lehigh’s nomination website. “Nominees should be someone whose work and achievements reflect our value system at Lehigh and whose message is one that will serve as a capstone to our graduates’ educational experience.”

The May 2016 ceremony will be more “high-profile” according to the website. The 2016 commencement has a bit more weight to it, as it represents the official closing of Lehigh’s sesquicentennial year. Nominators are encouraged to dream big and consider nominating a speaker who will be fitting for the sesquicentennial year commencement.

“Every year, we try to select a speaker who will have a broad appeal and offer an appropriately inspiring and relevant message to our graduates,” said Bill Whitney, executive assistant to the president, in an email. “But for 2016, we are including some additional stakeholders in the feedback process, primarily the planners of Lehigh’s sesquicentennial activities, and are maybe more focused on bringing in a widely-known name, someone who may draw attention from the broader region and nation.”

Whitney described the multi-step process of selecting a speaker as difficult, but rewarding. The process begins approximately 18 months prior to the commencement ceremony when the campus and Lehigh community are solicited for their nominations.

The commencement speaker nomination committee reviews the nominations and then provides a list of recommended nominees to the president who further considers the available nominees. The president will then approach the board of trustees for its feedback. After the board gives its view, the President’s Office will reach out to possible candidates.

“We want there to be a rich list of people to choose from this year, someone people can really get excited about,” said Dave Anastasio, a professor of earth and environmental sciences and the chair of the commencement committee. “A speaker that is going to galvanize this excitement.”

The Commencement Speaker Nomination Committee is comprised of the faculty chair Anastasio, the chairman of honorary degree committee, a staff member from the Dean of Students Office, a staff member from advancement, the undergraduate and graduate Student Senate presidents, a representative from the President’s Office, and two class officers from the Class of 2016. This rotating mix of faculty, staff and students represents a wide range of views.

Max DeZarn, the class of 2016 president, said he was honored to be selected as one of the Lehigh students on the committee that will review the list of nominations.

He explained that the main job of the committee is to get the word out to students about next year’s commencement and to encourage them to nominate people to be the speaker.

“(Having students on the committee) offers a different perspective,” DeZarn said. “The demographic of the committee varies by age and by interests, so I think all of those qualities make us well-rounded. Having students (on the committee) is obviously very important to that.”

The number of nominations typically ranges from 50 to 100 and can be made for the commencement speaker, baccalaureate speaker and honorary degree recipient.

“We always try and give the campus community many opportunities to submit nominations, as the more we receive, the better,” Whitney said.

To encourage nominations this year, the Dean of Student’s Office offered a raffle contest where those who submitted a nomination were entered to win a gift card from the bookstore.

There are the perennial nominees, people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, in addition to a wide range of people from academics to entertainers, athletes, writers and public intellectuals.

“It’s always a wide range of people to consider,” Whitney said.

DeZarn said the committee is not necessarily searching for someone from a specific area of work or someone with certain qualifications. He also referred to the diversity of commencement speakers in past years—many of which who have delivered great speeches.

“They’ve all come from a lot of different areas,” he said. “We’ve had some actors, some people involved in journalism and television and people that were in big business and finance.”

DeZarn said this nomination process is important because commencement is an important event not just for those graduating, but to the entire Lehigh community.

“I think its great to bring in someone who is inspiring or who has done important work,” he said.

Many of what one would consider really excellent commencement speakers get booked very early in advance. This is why the committee makes sure to invite the speaker a year-and-a-half in advance. Whitney said that it is not unusual to go through two or three potential speakers before actually finding one who can do it.

There are some restrictions for the commencement speaker, such as he or she cannot be an active student or faculty member at Lehigh or a sitting politician.

Prior honorees include Bill Nye The Science Guy, His Excellency Ali Al-Naimi, Ellen Kullman, Dr. Elie Wiesel, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, William Amelio, Ken Burns and Maya Angelou.

“This is a person you will remember for the rest of your life,” Anastasio said. “Junior class, take ownership of your graduation by nominating someone.”

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