McLaughlin: In search of a commencement speaker

Will McLaughlin, Columnist

I get a kick of out university graduation addresses. This annual speech attracts plenty of buzz and speculation and often fails to live up to expectations. In this sense, it’s much like our football program. But more than the actual words and messages of the speech, the graduation speaker reflects the state of the school. It bodes well for the school to bring in a rising star or a big name from the world of arts, politics or business. And, for the thousands of attendees, the speaker lends some gravitas to the whole day.

Buzz about the spring commencement speaker is an amusing pastime at Northwestern. I think students care about the speaker not only for entertainment purposes but also for the credit he or she gives the school. A good commencement speaker can fuel excitement about commencement months ahead of time — and even becomes a symbol of pride for seniors.

But the task of selecting a graduation speaker is not easy. It takes serious, deliberate thought and planning. Many voices have to be heard and many deals brokered. At least that’s how I imagine the whole scenario works. In no particular order, here are my choices for this year’s graduation speaker.

Joe Girardi

I am a Red Sox fan and still think the Yankees manager and one-time industrial engineering student has a lot to share. With so much attention focused on NU sportscaster alumni, it would make sense to revisit our athlete grads for a change. The task of convincing him to speak would be another story.

Edward Snowden

Political concerns aside, his stand for values and willingness to sacrifice livelihood deserves attention if not admiration. Perhaps he could deliver a videoconference address from Russia where he has sought political asylum. At any rate, such a move might please the pro-controversy commencement speaker crowd.

Chris Christie

Political concerns aside, New Jersey Gov. Christie has intrigued a nation. Similar to then-Senator Obama’s address to NU in 2006, this speech would recognize a rising political star. Sen. Obama began his address by referencing an article written in the “school newspaper” by a graduating senior. Gov. Christie, you won’t let me down.

Bill Gates

The tech-wunderkind-turned-philanthropist could be a role model for NU seniors and future captains of industry. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave NU a multimillion-dollar grant in 2006, so chances are good  NU is at least on his radar. While Bill is busy these days evangelizing disease eradication in the developing world, perhaps NU alumnus and trustee Ben Slivka, a former Microsoft exec, could work this angle and find some free time on Gates’ schedule this June.

Cody Keenan

OK, this one will not bring the kind of star power that a proper commencement needs. But this Weinberg grad has one saving grace: he is President Obama’s chief speechwriter. He may lack the oratorical abilities and presence behind the lectern, but the content will all be there. Plus who would not like to hear stories from the West Wing and Air Force One? Instead of the State of the Union, he could deliver the State of the University.

But the most touted commencement speaker must deliver come graduation day. The online lecture circuit TEDx instructs its speakers to keep talks under 18 minutes, thankfully. Personal experience tells me that the best speakers stay away from a list of dos and don’ts. They tell stories and weave together seemingly unrelated stories into a coherent message. They realize that even engineering students cannot cram paragraphs full of advice into their minds.

I’m confident University President Morton Schapiro will select a speaker worthy of the class of 2014. And if he does not — and we wind up with some schmuck — then it would be part of a long and storied NU tradition.

Will McLaughlin is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, leave a comment or send a letter to the editor to [email protected].