How do universities pick their commencement speakers?

It's college-graduation day. The stage is set and the audience is filled with beaming parents, dangling tassels, and beach balls catapulting through the air. Graduates can sit back and enjoy the commencement speech - but only because many people worked for months to choose the right speaker.

Take Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Before this year, the school let only honorary-degree recipients address the crowd. But when the White House called in April to scout out graduation speaking opportunities for the commander in chief, the school made an exception.

"We said 'sure,' " says Joel Hargis, director of college relations at Carleton. The news meant Carleton officials had to scurry to modify the schedule. "We do not have outside speakers like this ..., [but] this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Mr. Hargis says. It all came together last weekend when President Clinton addressed 423 grads on making college more affordable.

Smith College had the opposite predicament. School officials announced last November that actress Jodie Foster would talk, but then she canceled. They had to scramble to find a replacement, says Laurie Fenlason, media relations director. After phone calls and approvals, this year's orator became artist and author Judy Chicago.

Other colleges would rather avoid the hassle of trying to land a big name on commencement day; they strive instead to turn their entire focus to the graduates.

Brown University in Providence, R.I., has always used student speakers "because our students are so interesting, of course," says Bruce Donovan, an associate dean. The process involves long hours of preparation and practice. A 10-person committee solicits nominations for two orators. Nominees send in speech abstracts, and the committee whittles them down. Then, six students give their speeches in front of the panel. The top two are picked and coached on how to present. One speaker this year discussed how to remember college life, saying, "The truth is not about fact. It's about feeling."

At St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., honorary-degree recipients usually give a short presentation, says spokeswoman Macreena Doyle. One year, a cellist "eschewed the speech altogether, and just played - she got a rousing standing ovation from the graduates," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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