Students question choice of CEO as graduation speaker

by Tim Spellman | 5/7/04 5:00am

General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt '78 will speak at this year's commencement, while Kofi Annan, Sandra Day O'Connor, Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart are speaking at the graduations of other top universities -- a state of affairs that has riled many campus seniors.

Seniors said that while Immelt may be a successful businessman, but that they had hoped for a speaker who boasts a more wide-ranging impact on the world -- not just the world economy.

"I think it's a really uninteresting choice," Erika Easter '04 said. "He might be successful, but I just don't find [Immelt] inspiring."

One student even said he would consider leaving the ceremony if Immelt fails to meet his standards.

"A good graduation speaker is supposed to be funny and engaging," Bartow Elmore '04 said. "If Jeffrey Immelt isn't funny, I might just get up and leave."

Some students noted that other elite schools have secured more prestigious graduation speakers. This year, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will speak at Harvard's commencement, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will speak at Stanford's, former President Bill Clinton will speak at Cornell's and political humorist Jon Stewart will speak at Princeton's.

"To me, it is a little disappointing that Dartmouth selected a successful businessman for its commencement speaker, while other schools have people, like Annan, Clinton and O'Connor, who have actually had a profound impact on the world itself, not just its economy," said Megan McCulloch '04.

Other students expressed concerns over the selection of Immelt as commencement speaker in light of his recent financial contributions to the school. Immelt is a member of the Class of 1978's Reunion Giving Committee, which raised a record-breaking $14.4 million last year.

The process for selecting the graduation speaker began on Sept. 22, 2003 when a letter was sent to all graduating students, soliciting nominations for honorary degrees. Only one senior submitted a nomination, according to senior class president Alexa Hansen '04.

The Council of Honorary Degrees, composed of College President James Wright, Hansen and six faculty members, then reviewed and added nominations and passed the list to President Wright and the Board of Trustees for finalization. After Wright and the Trustees made their honorary degree selections, based in part on availability, Wright chose a degree recipient to be the commencement speaker.

"The criteria we used to choose the people was a wider variety of involvement in several different fields, and a current public interest in what they were doing," Hansen said.

The dramatic lack of student response to the call for nominations may stem from the fact that the letter neglected to mention that the graduation speaker would be selected from the list of honorary degree recipients.

Not all students' responses to the selection of Immelt has been negative. For one, outgoing Student Assembly President Janos Marton '04 praised Immelt's selection.

"Immelt is one of the most visible Dartmouth graduates in the country, and its an honor to have him come home for this graduation," Marton said.

But enthusiasm for Immelt has been, overall, muted at best. As with many seniors, Beau Saccoccia '04 is apathetic about the choice.

"I'm not expecting much from Jeff Immelt's speech. I'd rather see someone who's influenced the way people think or someone who has left a social impact," Saccoccia said. "If nothing else, I'd at least want a graduation speaker who could make me laugh. I am disappointed, but in the end, it's not something that's going to affect my memory of Dartmouth."