Booking it

(Devon Geyelin/YH Staff)

Before journalist Barbara Walters took the stage to deliver last year’s Class Day speech, this year’s Class Day co-chairs Jonny Barclay, MC ’13, and Chantal Ghanney, SY ’13, were already searching for their graduating class’s Class Day speaker. “We wanted to make sure we could get started on the process quickly and efficiently,” Barclay said.

The co-chairs, who are responsible for planning all aspects of Class Day, including arranging a speaker and selecting student speakers, consulted members of their class and members of the administration to compile a list of potential speakers. “It’s a balancing act between who students want and who the administration will find appropriate,” Barclay said.

By tradition, Yale does not have a commencement speaker, so the school does not attract speakers with honorary degrees and speaking fees. The process to select honorary degree recipients is independent of the Class Day speaker selection process. “We do the speakers a favor by choosing them, but they do us a favor, as the speakers are not given any compensation,” Ghanney said. “It’s always an honor for us as an institution.”

Some years’ Class Day co-chairs seek out distinct types of speakers, a particularly relevant individual or a representative of a group who may have been underrepresented in the roster of speakers stretching back to 1979.  Last year’s co-chairs specifically sought out an accomplished female speaker who had experienced and witnessed numerous important events, Ghanney said. Walters was the first female Class Day speaker since Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, GRD ’63, who spoke in 2005. In 2011, the year actor Tom Hanks delivered the Class Day speech, the Senior Class Council sought out a speaker from the entertainment industry.

This year’s speaker, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, LAW ‘97,  is the first African American to speak at Class Day since Norton, though Barclay said he and Ghanney were not looking specifically for an African-American speaker. Their main criterion for the speaker was “fantastic speaking skills,” Barclay said. They also focused on finding someone who would be relatable to young people and whose message would resonate with the class, Ghanney said.

The co-chairs worked closely with Penelope Laurans, master of Jonathan Edwards College. Laurans has served as Class Day adviser to the senior class since 1997.  She acts as a liaison between the co-chairs and the University administration.

Booker was the co-chairs’ first choice from the very beginning of their search. “I watched the video of his commencement speech at Stanford,” Ghanney said. “I must say I was blown away.” In addition to his speaking skills, Booker’s accomplishments as a public servant, including reducing Newark’s crime rates and supporting the city’s charter schools, also impressed the co-chairs.  The co-chairs got into contact with Booker through President Richard Levin, GRD ‘74, Barclay said.

Despite the Class Day co-chairs’ excitement, the announcement of Booker as this year’s speaker was met with some criticism from students on social media, Ghanney said. Disappointed students generally expressed that they wished the speaker was higher-profile. Negative responses from students are not uncommon after Class Day speaker announcements. Moreover, the selection of political figures is often divisive and polarizing.

In 2008, a group of seniors calling themselves Yale Seniors Against the War planned a protest during former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Class Day address. In a May 24, 2008 opinion piece in the Yale Daily News, Yonah Freemark, SY ’08, and Lea Krivcheni, TD ’08, stressed that, “Class Day for us, like for everyone, is important…While Mr. Blair is no longer Prime Minister, he remains an influential figure in international politics. His speech will likely not address the Iraq War, but as students, it is our chance to directly voice our disapproval of his involvement in the war and to hold him accountable for
his actions.”

In 2001, graduating seniors circulated a petition asking signers to boycott the speech given by Hilary Clinton, LAW ’73. In a May 2001 op-ed by Yevgeny Vilensky, TD ’03, in the Yale Free Press exclaimed, “The Class Day speaker should inspire and unite the graduating class. What is Hillary going to inspire us to do?…At worst, she is a criminal. At best, she should be investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee. Either way, she should stay away from this years Class Day.”

Though they did not send a class-wide survey during the speaker selection process, Barclay and Ghanney consulted students of varied interest groups. Apart from the Class Day co-chairs, the only other seniors directly involved in the speaker selection process are the secretary and treasurer of the Senior Class Council.

According to Laurans, Class Day was once known as Presentation Day, so named because the day began with the “presentation” of students who passed their final exams to the University’s president. At Presentation Day, orations were delivered by both a graduating student and the President, senior prizes were awarded, and a student-written ode was sung. Four selected students delivered class histories, which were often lengthy and prolonged, Laurans said. Later in the day, the students smoked “Pipes of Peace” to “seal their friendship and to heal any discord between them,” Laurans said. Presentation Day ended with the planting of ivy. “The day was a mixture of prizes, orations, nostalgia and celebration,” Laurans said. “So it is today.”

The task of selecting the guest speaker has historically been granted to students. The select students responsible for selecting a speaker face no easy task. Not only must they please a wide array of students and administrators and live up to standards set by past Class Days, but they must find a speaker without offering a speaking fee. It’s no wonder that by the time Booker offers his words of wisdom to this year’s graduating class, a new generation of co-chairs will be on the lookout for next year’s Class Day speaker.

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