Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Julia Wolfe. Rev. William T. Barber II. John Leguizamo. Recent Drew Commencement speakers have varied from NBA stars to composers, actors to activists. Leading up to former New Jersey Governor and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman’s speech at Drew on May 11, The Acorn sat down with Chief of Staff Barb Bresnahan to discuss how Commencement speakers are chosen.
COURTESY OF DREW UNIVERSITY
Every few years—in this case, two—President MaryAnn Baenninger convenes a panel of students to discuss the qualities that they would want in a future commencement speaker. The ideas and suggestions of the panel that resulted in Leguizamo’s selection as 2018 Commencement Speaker were used again to choose Whitman. Bresnahan said that the main themes brought up by students include a speaker who is “not confrontational,” and ensuring that the university varies between speakers with different political backgrounds and personal beliefs.
Whitman fits most of these, along with another topic brought up often by the panel, “environmentalist.” The former E.P.A. administrator has faced controversy in the past for racist statements made as governor, but most students simply say that they have not heard of her. This fits another criterion that Baenninger looks at—the speakers do not necessarily have to be famous, as long as they are “someone who can speak to the students and have the right message,” according to Bresnahan.
The university attempts to rotate in ideology of its speakers—not just at Commencement, but for the Drew Forum lecture series as well. The 2017-2018 Forum series and Commencement each had more left-leaning speakers, while this year’s have trended more conservative. While the Drew Forum speakers for next year will not be announced until August and the Commencement speaker until next spring, it is likely that a new panel will be asked what qualities they want to see in a future speaker.