Clear pattern visible in decade of speakers

Richard Engel.

Richard Engel.

Over the course of the 10 commencement ceremonies Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., has presided over as Fordham’s 32nd president, white men — mostly television broadcasters made famous for their prime newscast timeslots — have dominated the field of graduation keynote speakers, drawing high recognition, but leaving little room for diversity.

Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011, was the only woman to address graduating seniors in the last 10 years. That was in 2010.

Willie Randolph, the manager of the New York Mets from 2005 to 2008, stood on the steps of Keating Hall and addressed the Class of 2007 as Fordham’s only speaker of color in recent memory.

Last spring, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel spoke sternly to the Class of 2013, beginning his address by saying: “Without guts, you may as well not be alive.” And he was just the latest in a string of broadcasters to address graduating seniors.

In fact, six of the past 10 commencement speakers have been television journalists — five earned acclaim while working at NBC. Aside from Engel, Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News, spoke in 2011; Tom Brokaw, anchor of the NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004, spoke in 2009; Chris Matthews, known for The Chris Matthews Show, spoke in 2006; and Tim Russert, the longest-serving moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, spoke in 2004.

Charlie Rose of CBS was the keynote speaker in 2008.

The only Fordham alumni to be recently chosen as commencement speakers were John Brennan, FCRH ’77, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who spoke in 2012, and John Sexton, FCRH ’63, president of New York University, who spoke in 2005.

Several academic deans did not respond to queries for comment.

This year’s speaker, set to address the Class of 2014 on May 17, has not yet been publicly named, though an announcement is expected to be made within the next two weeks.

When asked, Bob Howe, Fordham’s chief spokesman, said diversity is a “major consideration” for McShane and the university’s Board of Trustees as they go about selecting a speaker.

He added that there are a number of factors that go into the decision process, including whether a given speaker is available — “Fordham is competing with every other university in the United States for speakers, even if those commencements don’t fall on the same day as ours,” he said — and if a speaker has connections to Fordham.

Howe said recent commencement speakers have predominantly been broadcasters because the communication and media studies major is one of the most popular on campus.

School officials have declined to say whether this year’s selection will deviate from the pattern that has developed on campus over the past decade.

Students and alumni, however, have consistently said Fordham should look to diversify the speakers brought to campus for graduation.

Aileen Reynolds, FCRH ’14, executive president of United Student Government (USG), conceded she was not aware of the full process by which a commencement speaker is selected. Still, she added, Fordham should welcome more diversity.

“I would hope that the selection committee considers a variety of different people including people of different races, genders and experiences when choosing a commencement speaker,” she said via email. “I personally would like to see an increase in commencement speakers who are women and people of color in the years to come.”

Tochi Mgbenwelu, FCRH ’15, president of ASILI, the Black Student Alliance on campus, struck a similar tone.

“I completely understand how some would see this as a diversity issue and I agree,” she said. “Moreover, diversity on campus in general is an additional cause for concern.”

Mgbenwelu, who will soon be campaigning for next year’s top USG post, added: “As a woman, I strongly believe Fordham can do better.”

Michael Billotti, FCRH ’15, president of the College Democrats group on campus, said that while Fordham succeeds in promoting diversity on campus in many ways, administrators should select a wider variety of graduation keynote speakers going forward.

“We should embrace and acknowledge the fact that more minorities and women are taking a leading role in the world,” he said. “Our graduates are members of the most diverse generation in American history, and the leading voice at their graduation should symbolize that.”

But Nevin Kulangara, GSB ’15, another candidate for next year’s top USG post, said he was less concerned.

“I think diversity encompasses much more than gender and ethnicity,” he said. “As long as the university is keeping an open mind and considering the students’ best interest when making its decision, I’m not concerned.”

Along with current students, many Fordham alumni have considered the question of whether commencement speaker diversity has been a problem on campus.

Sara Kugel, FCRH ’11, executive president of USG in 2011, agreed with most current students.

“I think the majority of the Fordham community agrees with me when I say Fordham graduation is pretty close to perfect,” she said by email. “However, of the very small list of areas to improve, diversifying the speakers should certainly be on there.”

Kugel said she looks forward to the day when a woman stands in front of a graduating class on Edward’s Parade.

“Of course this is much easier said than done, but I hope the university makes a concerted effort to change things up a bit,” she said.

Meanwhile, Caitlin Meyer, FCRH ’12, executive president of USG in 2012, says McShane and the Board of Trustees should allow for students to play a greater role in the selection process.

“Whether speakers are white, black, gay, straight, Catholic, Muslim, male, female, rich or poor, I think it is critical that students play an active role in nominating and choosing them,” she said.

This article was also published by The Fordham Ram.