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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Senior Speaker’ selection process changed

Published: January 27, 2006
Section: News

On Dec. 11, 2005 the Student Union Senate passed a resolution in response to changes in the senior speaker selection process made by the Office of the Dean of Student Life. The changes in the process were part of an overhaul of the commencement ceremony in an attempt by the administration to shorten its length.

Currently there are several speakers at commencement including the student and commencement speaker as well as several deans and the Chair of the Board of Trustees. Dean Rick Sawyer comments that this is one piece of a major overhaul of commencement and was asked to put some zest and spark into the whole program.

The previous system, which had not been seriously changed in 20 years, includes the following process. First, a committee made up of eight seniors and four faculty created an essay topic for candidates. Those seeking the position wrote two-page essays on the topic, which would then be distributed to committee members, read, and ranked. From here, ten semi-finalists were voted on by the senior class considering the semi-finalists names, biographical information, and the essay. Each voter was allowed to vote for three, while the top 5 ranked would make a live presentation to the committee. Dean Sawyer commented that usually only one or two would reach this step.

Sawyer consulted with Dean Jaffe on forming a new process [that] is based meaningfully on the previous process. The result was a reduced committee, increased faculty involvement, and encouraged creativity by having no predetermined essay topic and a shift toward a better, creative submission. An attempt was made to shift the focus of the selection upon the quality of writing, rather than the candidates popularity. This new system would attempt to ascertain the thoughts of ten people.

Here a conflict presented itself as a concern existed on part of the student union e-board that there should be some ability for seniors to put someone up theyd like to see up there said Sawyer. The union passed a resolution strongly urging student participation in choosing the student speaker. Aaron Gaynor 07, Director of Union Affairs, helped draft the resolution and notes that its purpose was to send a very clear message to Dean Sawyer, President Reinharz, and all other parties involved that the student body expects and even demands that they be a part of this process, and it not be a closed committee. Following the resolutions passage, Gaynor wrote a formal proposal on behalf of the Union to the administration concerning this matter.

The proposal was given to both Dean Sawyer and Jean Eddy, Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment. Both Sawyer and Eddy were amenable to the idea and presented it to the full committee. Although the administration has some small issues with it and may tweak it, the union is comfortable with the administrations response.
The new proposed process now has Dean Sawyer accepting applications on behalf of the committee. The applications consist of the actual speech they may present, not a predetermined essay. It is meant to give the committee a good sense of what they will say, and then allow the field to be narrowed to 10-15 people. From here, the senior class would vote on these roughly ten choices via two ballots. The first contains an excerpt of the speech without the authors name. A second ballot is then given with only the names presented. These votes form a criterion for the committee to choose from among the top five vote-getters. The five finalists are then called back to the committee to present their entire speeches for a final decision.

This new-found cooperation gives the Student Union its goal of giving students a voice in who will represent them at their own commencement ceremony. The union desired an empowering memory, not one where there is anger because they felt like they didnt get a chance to say who they wanted to represent them commented Gaynor. Nick Freeman 07, Union Treasurer, agreed noting I think this is a compromise that addresses the administrations initial concern while giving the senior class the choice they deserve.

While all agree that there are no guarantees that any system will deliver a good speech at commencement, both parties believe that the new process has a better chance of delivering a good product observed Dean Sawyer. Overall he is positive about itits under controla good outcome. We can make adjustments in the future and we may learn something from this.

Gaynor was also pleased with the result saying, that Im very glad that we were able to work with the administration on a student friendly solution.