Students push for comedian John Oliver as Commencement speaker

by Samantha Stern | 3/31/16 6:06pm

A recent petition, written by Zac Hardwick ’16 and Ben Wood ’16, urged the College to invite English comedian, political commentator and television host John Oliver to be the commencement speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony. The petition said that Oliver would continue Dartmouth’s rich history of inviting speakers “who bring an interesting, non-traditional perspective on life” to the graduating class.

Hardwick and Wood posted the petition on Change.org at the beginning of spring break. Currently, the online petition has about 550 signatures.

The idea to start a petition first came to Hardwick and Wood during winter term, Wood said. The two frequently watch Oliver’s show and thought that he would be an excellent choice for commencement speaker because he tackles social issues, such as gay marriage and women’s rights, he said. The two also felt that the commencement speaker should be someone with whom the class was familiar.

A commencement speaker should be someone that the graduating class wants to send it off, and should both address the emotional aspect of graduating and impart life advice, he said.

“If we’re going to go out with a bang, we should have someone who adequately demonstrates how we view the world,” Wood said.

The number of signatures did not surprise Wood, who mentioned that he has received overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Wood said that he and Hardwick have been in contact with the administration and plan on meeting with them in the coming days. He pointed to Shonda Rhimes ’91 as an example of a commencement speaker who was brought to campus in large part due to student body support.

While Wood acknowledged that the lack of advanced planning may be an issue, he also noted that Dartmouth’s graduation is later in the year than most college graduations. Graduation is scheduled for June 12.

The nomination process for the commencement speaker and other honorary degree recipients begins in the fall and is open to the Dartmouth community, College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote in an email.

A student representative is also invited to join in the Council on Honorary Degree’s deliberations, she added. For at least the past nine years, this member has been the senior class president or their delegate. The representative is free to communicate with the student body as he or she sees fit, she said.

In total, the council typically receives between 100 and 150 nominations before the October deadline, of which it selects between four and six honorees in addition to the speaker.

The council looks for nominees who have made or expected to make significant contributions to a field or to society in general, Lawrence wrote. Most selected nominees also have a connection to the Dartmouth community, either as an alumnus, parent or former faculty member.

The council will not consider anyone who is an active political candidate. College employees cannot receive an honorary degree until three years after retirement.

Upon narrowing the list of proposed candidates, council members meet with College President Phil Hanlon, who presents the recommended nominees to the Board of Trustees. The board ultimately approves names for potential honorary degree recipients.

Although nominations remain confidential, final decisions as to this year’s honorees and commencement speaker will likely be announced publicly in late April, Lawrence said.

Wood said that the consensus of many of his peers was that as a student body, they were never truly engaged in the conversation.

“To some, [a perceived lack of communication] was somewhat of an underhanded move by the administration,” Wood said. “It should have been some sort of discourse [but] there was genuinely no dialogue.”

Nevertheless, Lawrence wrote that the council emailed the Dartmouth community, including the Class of 2016, multiple times soliciting nominations. Students were asked to provide nominations on Sept. 18, Sept. 22, Oct. 6, Oct. 8 and Oct. 14.

Past commencement speakers have included talk show host Conan O’Brien, founder and CEO of Teach for America Wendy Kopp, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc. Geoffrey Canada, television producer and writer Rhimes and New York Times political writer David Brooks.

Among past speakers, O’Brien’s commencement address was received extremely well, Wood said. A video of the speech posted to YouTube currently has 2,741,542 views.

“O’Brien had one of the most popular commencement speeches in modern memory,” he said.

Comments on the online petition reflect student interest. Ridhima Gurnani ‘16 posted on the page that Oliver “would be just as memorable as Conan.”

“I think [Oliver’s] ability to laugh at his own faults and point out those in others without being judgmental is something we should emulate,” Matt Greer ’18 commented online.

“Few people can rival John Oliver’s wit, intellect and striking societal relevance. I can’t think of a better commencement speaker,” Josh Cetron ’16 commented.

Nick Hodgson ’16 signed the petition because he appreciates Oliver’s transparency.

“He speaks what he thinks more than being influenced by what other people are saying,” Hodgson said.

Oliver is engaging and can lift the audience’s spirits, in what will be lengthy graduation proceedings, said Sarah Decker, a graduate student with a concentration in creative writing.

There are a lot of issues in our world that students have to contend with, but humor makes current problems seem solvable, she said.

“You don’t want the little adages and these little quips of what life is supposed to be, because it’s different for everybody,” Decker said. “I think that John Oliver would bring a variety of messages for people.”

Oliver’s management could not be reached for comment. Hardwick declined to comment.