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SU's commencement speaker selection explained

With uncertainty among some as to why science pioneer J. Craig Venter will be delivering this year's commencement speech to graduates, a school official breaks down the student-driven process.

Just how is a commencement speaker selected?

That question surfaces almost annually around the time when a notable national or world figure is announced as the person who will deliver the address to thousands of Syracuse University graduates, their family and friends.

For the past 16 years, Susan Germain has been an integral part of the commencement arrangements. As executive director of the Office of Special Events, Germain works with marshals, scholars and the guest with the biggest spotlight -- the commencement speaker.

2011 Commencement Speaker
J. Craig Venter

When: 9:30 a.m., Sunday, May 15
Where: Carrier Dome
Official SU Commencement website
J. Craig Venter Institute

As this year's ceremony nears, Germain discussed, during an interview with The NewsHouse, about the process, challenges and surprises for graduation.

The NewsHouse:  When does the process of choosing a commencement speaker start?

Susan Germain: It’s been changed in the last three years. We used to do it in the fall, but it’s very difficult to get a commencement speaker between Christmastime and May. You can imagine from the list the students submit, many of them are highly, highly sought after for many other convocations.  So we moved the process back [to the spring].

Who is on the committee that selects the speaker?

Germain: The student marshals are selected in February. Class marshals are announced in March. At the end of March, I have a meeting with all class, school and college marshals. They sit down with the chancellor, she gives them their charge.

Can you walk me through the selection process?

Germain: Anyone can submit a name to the [Syracuse University] website. The list this year was hundreds of people. We gave each of [the scholars and marshals] the list. They then meet on their own, without the chancellor or myself, about four or five times. From that list they can add names, or they can subtract names. The chancellor asks them to give an unweighted list to her. Usually it’s about 25 to 30 names. From that the chancellor [makes the decision.] The chancellor is very respectful of the students’ process. She is very definitive that the name will come from that list.

Do you think the students recognize that it’s that democratic?

Germain: They always want to have a gripe. Last year the claimed they had no idea. That's not the case. It’s up on the website. We put ads in the [Daily Orange]. We had it on the Facebook page. We send out emails. And when you get that many names back, you know people are submitting names. I think in many cases it’s more that they’re uneducated about the process.

I think a lot of students think that they can't possibly read every single name that's put on the website.

Germain: The only ones we take off are obviously if they’re dead, or a cartoon character, or they’re an Xbox live character, but aside from that everyone is on the list.

Are there some interesting ones?

Germain: They’re always funny. Some nominate students in their class. Every year we get Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. And then people do nominate people who are deceased: more often than you’d think.

What does the commencement speaker bring to the ceremony?

Germain: I think it brings national prominence. Each year they bring a little something different to the table. I think this year will be a very informative speech, and something that everyone will walk away feeling more educated and like they really had a commencement speech.

What do you think people will take away from J. Craig Venter’s speech?

Germain: The future. What he’s doing is the future. His work with the human genome, everything can build off of it. It's one of those things that if you weren’t involved, you will be.

What has been the reaction you’ve seen this year?

Germain: Thrilled. I only had one parent who called, and that is unheard of. The students I meet with are very excited. This year has probably been the easiest of my 16 years.

Venter's not exactly a controversial figure either.

Germain: What his work is might be considered somewhat controversial, but he’s not a controversial person by nature. He was here on campus [for the opening of The Life Sciences complex in 2008] and everyone who was part of that was really moved by what he said. We’re lucky to get him.

What’d the parent who called say?

Germain: It was only the one. They said we don't know why you got a scientist, were not going to understand it. But we explained the process to them and they felt a little better. There’s no smoke and mirrors here.

Who is the student speaker?

Germain: Nope, can't say yet. It’s not released until that morning. It may get out, but it’s more exciting for me to keep it as a highly guarded secret. They’re elected by the scholars, and even their name is not published in the program because they’re speaking on behalf of your class.

Are you looking forward to getting to the day and being able to breathe a sigh of relief?

Germain: It’s one of those things where the closer you get to it the more excited you get. It’s sort of like planning for a wedding. There’s all these headaches, and everybody’s got a problem. And then that day, everybody’s happy and you really feel great.

Do you still get excited every year?

Germain: Every year. You can't help it. This is my 16th year doing commencements. I work with the scholars and the marshals, and they are truly inspirational to me because you walk away saying, “I didn't do anything in college compared to what they’ve done.”

Notable Commencement Speakers of the Past Decade

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