Prominent commencement speakers, honorary degrees invaluable to college

By Managing Editor

As the Spring 2015 Semester comes to an end, students, faculty and staff are buzzing about this year’s commencement ceremonies, which are set for May 16 and 17.

While neighboring colleges tout celebrated honorary degree recipients and revered commencement speakers, Columbia has yet to announce this year’s speakers or degree recipients. 

Kanye West, who did not graduate from Columbia despite many rumors but whose late mother was formerly employed at the college, will be awarded an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at its May 11 commencement ceremony, according to a March 17 Chicago Tribune report. 

Similarly, hip-hop artist Common, a Columbia alumnus who recently won an Academy Award alongside John Legend in the category Best Original Song for “Glory” from the film “Selma,” was recruited to deliver the commencement address for City Colleges of Chicago on May 2, according to a March 27 Crain’s Chicago Business article. 

From composer Duke Ellington to poet Maya Angelou to eight-time Grammy winners Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia has lauded its fair share of acclaimed speakers and honorary degree recipients in the past. 

However, it seems that the college is now only bringing in lower-ranking names of local artists and business affiliates that mean more to the school’s administrators than to current students or alumni. 

What the college’s higher-ups may have failed to realize is that being able to tout those celebrated honorary degree recipients and commencement speakers sends the kind of message that not only impresses current students and encourages positive vibes among alumni, but also reassures and inspires potential incoming freshmen and transfer students. 

Seeing that such talents—including blues artist Buddy Guy, renowned journalist Dan Rather and recording artist Dionne Warwick—value an honorary degree from Columbia tells incoming students that this institution of higher learning is not only one that is going to prepare them for success in their respective creative fields, but it is also an institution that has garnered respect from talented professionals who have already seen their fair share of success. 

This year, film director Christopher Nolan will address graduates at Princeton University, Denzel Washington will speak at Dillard University and Matthew McConaughey will address graduates at the University of Houston, according to an April 3 CNN report.

Inviting such prominent speakers to a commencement ceremony is often paid for by the college requesting the visit. The cost is often exorbitant—McConaughey’s May 15 appearance at U of H will cost the university $135,000, according to CNN. 

And while Columbia may be operating under a deficit, there is no reason comedian Stephen Colbert, who got his start in Chicago, should be speaking at Wake Forest University in North Carolina as opposed to Columbia. 

But the looming decline in prominence of the school’s commencement speakers and degree recipients is just one of many opportunities the college—especially the Office of Development/Alumni Relations headed by Vice President of Development Jon Stern—has missed. 

Bringing in top-ranking names from comedians to journalists to filmmakers should be considered a worthy effort to be pursued by an arts college, especially one that desperately needs to up its enrollment numbers. 

The cost of attracting prominent professionals to speak at Columbia could exceed $100,000, but the money spent bringing noteworthy speakers to a commencement ceremony is donated back to the college almost immediately—assuming the school’s administrators approach and interact with their guests in such a way that they will want to work with the college again in the future. 

Missing out on hosting notable speakers is not just a loss in excitement among graduates hoping to hear from a famous person as they accept their diplomas. It is yet another fundraising opportunity the college has failed to secure. 

For 10 years, Columbia hosted an event series called Conversations in the Arts,  which invited successful creative professionals to speak at the college and give students insight into their respective industries. 

Some of the esteemed guests included former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Horatio Sanz and the late Joan Rivers, who were Columbia’s final CITA guests last year, and such speakers offer valuable insight to students, especially considering the college’s relatively new comedy studies program. But the college did not offer the event this year.

As the college’s recently released draft of the Strategic Plan indicates, Columbia is in the middle of a major transition and will be for the foreseeable future, but reconfiguring the college’s budget should not mean punishing students for the college’s failure to make the most of its talented alumni and lacking fundraising abilities.