A committee of Barnard seniors formed to assist in the selection of the keynote commencement speaker for the class of 2018 has been disbanded without explanation, raising questions as to whether student input will factor into the selection of this year’s speaker.
The committee was created last November by former President Debora Spar as a means to allow for student input after student and faculty backlash over the selection of Barnard’s 2016 commencement speaker. Students on the committee, who had to apply for their positions, were informed by Spar that they would be meeting over the course of a year and a half to discuss who they wanted the speaker to be. The final decision, however, would still be left to Spar.
But the committee never met after Spar announced that she would be leaving the college in March to serve as president and CEO of Lincoln Center. And when Barnard President Sian Beilock took office in July, students who were members of the committee said they did not receive communications from the college.
While Dean of the College Avis Hinkson said that Chief Operating Officer Rob Goldberg, when acting as interim president, did not think it would be helpful to meet with the committee as he would not ultimately be the person to select the speaker, it is unclear why meetings with the committee were not resumed after Beilock began as president.
Instead of meeting with the committee, Beilock reached out to the Student Government Association’s senior class representatives in order to invite all seniors to apply to attend a conversation with her about their commencement ceremony, according to Hinkson.
While current seniors have the opportunity to submit nominations for the recipients of the Barnard Medal of Distinction, and students representatives sit on the medalist selection committee, the same level of access is not part of commencement speaker selection.
In 2016, Hinkson requested that SGA’s senior class representatives compile a list of speaker nominations, but the selection of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was not among those nominated, led students to question whether their recommendations were considered at all.
Aku Acquaye, BC ’18, one of two students to both serve on Spar’s committee and attend the conversation with Beilock, said the committee had the opportunity to pitch names to Spar on the premise that the administration would reach out to those who they felt were reasonable requests. But even then, she questioned just how seriously these considerations were taken.
“We say all these names and the secretaries take them down and tell us to email them more names … but there is no way to tell if those ideas were followed up on,” Acquaye said.
Virginia Fatt, BC ’18, who also sat on Spar’s committee, said administrators told her and other committee members that they hoped the creation of a committee would ease tensions after widespread backlash to the selection of Slaughter. Fatt chose not to attend the conversation with Beilock because she had originally been told, as a member of the committee, that the only way for students to contribute to the speaker selection process would be during their junior year.
“Basically they were like, ’We need to convene when you’re juniors because this is when we book [the speaker],” Fatt said. “Anything that people help with in their senior year is kind of bullshit. Based on what they told us, they have probably already picked the speaker.”
While Fatt said she does not blame Beilock for the administration’s failure to continue with the committee, she is worried that this year’s commencement speaker selection will be even more insular than it has been in the past.
“It’s too bad because they made an effort toward changing it and making it more student involved,” Fatt said. “Now it sounds like we’re going to end up with something that sounds like it’s less involved than it has ever been.”
Senior class president Ambika Mookerjee, BC ’18, who attended the conversation with Beilock, said that while she appreciated the opportunity to have students discuss speech themes with Beilock, she understood why some students would be disappointed not to have input in the process of selecting the speaker—especially since a committee had been created to do just that.
“I think it’s important for the students to have a say in their commencement speaker and medalists because at the end of the day, this event is for the students,” Mookerjee said. “Hopefully there will be a more clear process in the future.”
Caprice Herjavec contributed reporting.