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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Yawns for Bok

By Michael P. Mann

ON MONDAY, The Crimson reported that the Harvard Alumni Association has decided to invite outgoing President Derek Bok to give the keynote address at Commencement in June.

Now don't get me wrong. I like Derek Bok. As far as university presidents go, I would say he's one of the best. He has served Harvard faithfully and well, and deserves our respect. But he does not deserve to be the principal speaker at graduation.

Frankly, the prospect of Bok giving the main address is just not very exciting. We have all seen and heard him before. He speaks during Orientation week, hosts a tea during the fall, and occasionally strolls through the Yard.

Besides, Bok speaks at Commencement every year anyway. If the Alumni Association wants to give him special recognition--which is appropriate--then it should lengthen his speech. We seniors are certainly not going to mind spending an extra half hour basking in glory at Tercentary Theater--as long as we get to hear a luminary as well.

Recent graduating classes have been treated to world leaders. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke last year, and Benazir Bhutto '73, the former prime minister of Pakistan, spoke in 1989. The Class of 1991 deserves a speaker of similar stature, or at least someone famous and less familiar than our own chief administrator.

THERE IS NO shortage of interesting candidates. Harvard could invite George Bush or James Baker (or both for that matter; they seem joined at the hip). Bush is an Eli, which is problematic, but his title is sufficiently redeeming. And the administration has some explaining to do regarding the Middle East situation.

The president might even use the occasion to flesh out his much-heralded "New World Order." If we're really lucky, Bush might introduce a domestic agenda.

Alteratively, Harvard could invite Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell has just led the nation to an astounding military victory, and he is also one of the most promiment Black figures in America. Surely he has interesting things to say.

Unfortunately, he has not had an appropriate podium for addressing the nation on non-military issues. Harvard could provide him with one.

The arrival of a popular soldier on campus would probably provoke a hue and cry from Harvard's professional protesters. But Powell is not necessarily a military apologist; remember that Eisenhower was a major critic of the military-industrial complex. Also, campus protests would at least be interesting, something that another speech by Bok would not be.

TURNING to the world stage, Harvard could invite Nelson Mandela. If the University is really daring, it could extend an invitation to Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese democrat who has been in jail since 1979. Now that Anatoly Sharansky and Mandela are free, Wei has the unfortunate distinction of being the political dissident who has been imprisoned for the longest time. Harvard could embarrass the Chinese dictators and give a nudge to one of the world's last nightmarish Communist regimes.

I could go on, ad naseum. But the point is that there is a host of interesting candidates for Commencement speaker. And with Derek Bok giving the keynote, the Class of 1991 will miss out on all of them.

It would be too much to ask the Alumni "Association to retract its invitation to Bok. It would be impolite for them to do so, and there is no chance that the alumni would listen to us anyway. They never do.

But Bok could decline the invitation as a gesture to the senior class. He would still have the opportunity to give a farewell address, and he would make it possible for seniors to hear another excellent speech as well.

This latter scenario is within the realm of possibility. Bok has always had a good rapport with the student body. He has certainly been more sympathetic to our opinions and concerns than have the Overseers or members of the Corporation.

Two senior class marshals have said that they think a keynote by Bok would be just great. But Bok should be wary of thinking that the marshalls reflect student opinion in this case. Most seniors I have talked with say they are very disappointed that the University has decided not to invite any other speaker.

Of course, the marshalls are in a tough spot. They must work closely with University administrators. And to get along it is easier to go along, especially with a decision that has already been made.

In any case, the ball is in Bok's court now. He can accept or he can decline, and he should do what he thinks best. In making the decision, I would suggest that he try to remember what it was like to be an undergraduate, try to remember what he expected of Commencement as a senior.

If he can remember, he will be able to understand why we want to hear another speaker, in addition to himself, on June 6.

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