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"Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to be able to present this year's Class Day speaker. Born in Lexington, Kentucky, and raised in nearby Augusta, this man of the South has deep insights to share regarding the nature of the American experience. From the beginning, he has emulated only the most professional and reputable models, including his father, a Cincinnati talk show host. A scholar who has spent time at Northern Kentucky University, our guest has made it his business to absorb wisdom from all sectors of society. An athlete who has tried out for the Reds, he exudes the determination and dedication we seek ourselves. Finally, as a two-time Emmy Award nominee, he has obviously mastered the secrets of success. Now, Class of 1998, I give you George Clooney."
Such could be the introductory words of Radcliffe First Marshal Kavita Kacholia '98 or Harvard First Marshal Philip R. Kaufman '98 on Wednesday, June 3, 1998, should the work of the Class Day Speaker Selection Committee continue in set course. Clooney, the star of NBC's dramatic mini-series "ER", is but one of a handful of popular names being thrown around within the confines of the committee. According to sources on said committee, names of actors and entertainers are flying about like pizzas-in-the-making at Tommy's. But they are highly contested by scores of athletes, including Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Letters of invitation have yet to be sent out, but some are in the offing.
Kacholia laughs off the Clooney suggestion, but is quick to remark that "he's a cutie." Jason S. Cassidy '98 and Carrie A. Jablonksi '98, who are the co-chairs of the committee which is selecting the speaker, would not comment on specific names, a policy which was also the standard line from other committee members. Diane Jellis, who works in the Classes and Reunions Office, did not return repeated phone calls inquiring about the selection process.
"Would not a ballot with 10 choices on it serve the interests of the senior class? Can't it compete with Dining Services."
Such is the point: secrets and lies pervade the selection process. Although the committee has postered in various houses for suggestions from seniors, the names voiced in the process are non-binding suggestions only. The values which undergird those preferences are second to those of the elected committee. Now, this process ought to be sufficient since committee members are elected representatives. But is George Clooney all right by anyone's standards? Certainly not.
If George Clooney is the best that this committee can come up with, then the committee itself cannot be representative of the undergraduate population, which certainly has less plebian, white-bread tastes than the Nielsen families. The following anecdotes from multiple sources on the committee bolster that claim:
*Despite the multiple-house write-in campaign for the author Philip Roth, the committee was baffled by the suggestion when it was related to it. ("Philip who?")
*The suggestion of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley was considered laughable.
*When Gabriel Garcia Marquez came up, the sole questioner wondered whether the author was still alive.
*Candidates for whom English is a second or third language get negative marks on their name.
Does the speaker then have to come from popular television or radio, as he (and "he" is appropriate here) has during the past two years? Is the qualification in part the ability to look good on blue screens or sound good over the airwaves? Are we holding a pseudo-intellectual beauty contest? Maybe we are.
Given the admittedly bland tastes of the committee, why do the names of the candidates have to be secret, anyway. Last year, the names of various potential speakers--including the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the actor Tom Hanks and the eventual Class Day speaker, record-producer Quincy Jones--did not become public until spring. (Attention candidates for the council presidency: ever consider sunshine laws at Harvard?) Of course, the intricacies of procedure are in place for good reason, i.e. to "protect the candidates," in the words of one committee member. This translates to "We want control." Would not a ballot with 10 choices on it serve the interests of the senior class? Can't it compete with Dining Services?
In addition, the alumni affairs personnel want to insure, in the words of Cassidy, "that they [the candidates] can give us a good speech, have good things to say, that things go well. [The speech] doesn't have to be erudite or entertaining, but maybe a message for the future." Jablonksi adds her longing for a "good message--perhaps someone who has done a lot of work for their community or for society, or they have contributed something positive to the world." More specifically, committee member Chandler F. Arnold '98 cites the five characteristics of name recognition, message, speaking skills, broad appeal and whether he or she will show up. So, if we want a nice, positive message like "Just say no," how about Nancy Reagan? She's available.
The committee ought to consider whether the speaker is challenging. If a sense of challenge were considered to be as good a criteria as the others, we could get earnest political activists instead of politicians. What about wisdom? Why not try to hear from someone who is wiser than us--and not wise in the sense of erudite, but someone who is knowing in the ways of the world, like a distinguished author? Or someone who is able to speak to transcendent values? A religious figure who might be able to give us some perspective on our temporal successes and add a bit of humility or sense of obligation to an otherwise congratulatory experience would be a welcome speaker.
Is George Clooney really who we want for a Class Day speaker? Is Clooney really someone we wish to honor? Is Clooney someone we even wish to hear? Hopefully, the answer to that question is no; what the hell would he have to say? Maybe, "You all need brain surgery."
Joshua A. Kaufman, whose column appears on alternate Thursday, does not watch "ER".
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