Editor’s Note: Students should help choose Honorary Degree Recipients

By Megan Bennett, Editor-In-Chief

Besides walking across the stage and receiving a hard-earned diploma, one of the most memorable aspects of a student’s commencement experience is the speech from whomever sends them off into the world beyond higher education: the college’s Honorary Degree Recipients.

Columbia has a long history of seeking individuals who have made a name for themselves because of their progressive and society-changing ideals and/or talent in the arts community. 2016’s HDRs included actress Jane Lynch and songwriter Diane Warren, to name a couple. 

As reported on the Front Page, the college invited both new and familiar faces to the institution to give speeches and receive their awards.

While there is nothing wrong with the HDRs chosen, and each has insightful knowledge that they can bestow upon graduating seniors, it is surprising that the student body has no input regarding its graduation speakers. Because of that, it isn’t outrageous to wonder if these recipients are whom the students want to be hearing from.

As well as the new committee of faculty, staff and administration now choosing the student commencement speakers, as reported March 27 by The Chronicle, the HDR recommendations and decisions exclude the student body. The Office of the President sent a Nov. 15, 2016, email asking employees to provide recommendations for the 2017 HDRs with a deadline two weeks later, but it was not sent to students.

Commencement should benefit students first and foremost. Even if their recommendations or choices are not utilized, showing students that their voices are being heard and that they have the opportunity to participate could make the memorable day more significant for some. It even has potential to inspire more seniors to attend if they had not previously planned on walking the stage.

The college could also just involve the Student Government Association, if allowing recommendations from all students would cause a work overload for members of the committee that chooses the HDRs. The committee could provide SGA with a list of potential HDRs, which it could narrow down, choose from or even add to. If SGA chooses to involve more members of the student body or create a voting system—similar to how students collegewide vote for its Executive Board—that could be its responsibility to manage and relay the information back to the committee.

College employees should be nominating and choosing people who want to interact with students, not just the higher-up leaders. The college should arrange for the HDRs to meet with students not only during the Saturday and Sunday ceremonies. This could include allowing them to attend some of the semester’s final classes during the week or even set up a time at Manifest for them to speak and meet with students in a less formal setting that shows off a more holistic Columbia experience. Those who are able to do that will make the best HDR speakers because it shows their interest in Columbia—or Columbia’s interest in them—is not just financial or for name recognition.

Involving more students  in multiple aspects of future commencement ceremonies could be beneficial, and the HDR decisions are an easy, high-impact way to do so. 

In order for students to create long-lasting memories, whoever is brought to campus with the sole duty to excite and inspire graduating students should have an obvious ability to connect with Columbia’s student body. The only way to achieve that result is for Columbia to give more students a space in the discussion.