While peer schools have recently snagged big names like Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Brian Williams for Commencement speeches, Bowdoin is sticking to its longtime tradition of keeping the focus on the students.
Seniors Ian Yaffe and Samantha Scully, winners of the Goodwin Commencement Prize and Class of 1868 Prize, respectively, will be addressing the crowd at Bowdoin's 204th Commencement from the steps of the Walker Art Building. Bowdoin does not invite big keynote speakers; while honorary degree recipients have sometimes given brief remarks in the past, the practice was discontinued about 10 years ago.
"The biggest thing that I wanted to do is say thank you to everybody here at Bowdoin, and there's a lot of people, that have made it possible for me to attend here and have such a great education here," said Yaffe.
"And that would be a lot of thank you cards, so this will be an easier way to do it."
Yaffe, whose speech is titled "The Common Good and Commitment to Bowdoin," also wanted to share his ideas about what the common good really means.
"I hope that it's thought-provoking and controversial in a good way," he said.
Scully's speech, "Offer Accepted," will address her interpretation of the Offer of the College and how it has impacted her career at Bowdoin.
"We're going into a recession; we're all going into different fields that may not connect to our major," said Scully. "I thought this was a great time to understand the Offer of the College from someone who's been here for four years, who's now going into a new kind of world."
"There's been this tradition at the College that Commencement is about our students, and not about creating a forum for some famous person to come and give a talk," President Barry Mills said in a phone interview with the Orient.
"We've created opportunities for each of our honorands to give a talk, if they'd like to, to the community," such as at the Baccalaureate Ceremony, said Mills.
And if President Barack Obama was available to speak at Commencement? "We'd probably have him come and speak at Baccalaureate," Mills said.
Senior Class President Christian Adams said that many of his classmates have approached him about the lack of a big-name speaker. "People have said it would be really cool to have. It's sort of inspirational."
Yaffe, though, disagreed. "If you have someone famous come, it could easily become more of an opportunity for them to speak, rather than focusing on the fact that we just spent four years—or however long it takes—graduating from here," he said.
"I've gone to graduation since my freshman year, so I've always seen the two senior speakers," said Scully. "It seems to strike a good balance. Some are a little more serious; others can be funny."
"People get stuck saying, 'College is the best four years of my life!' Well, you have the rest of your life to be great," said Scully.
"These are really hard talks to do well," Mills said. "It's hard, I think, to set the right tone, to give the right speech. Over my time here, some people have done an excellent job, and some people have done a fair job."
Thinking back to his own graduation from Bowdoin, "I do remember who did it, but I don't remember the talks," Mills said.
"But we'll see how these folks do this year," he said.
The tradition of student speakers dates back to 1806, when Bowdoin celebrated its very first Commencement.
Louis C. Hatch in "The History of Bowdoin College" writes: "Professor Packard, in his Reminiscences, says of this Commencement: 'The exercises were held in the church building, yet unfinished and affording but a poor shelter from the pouring rain. President McKeen presided in the pulpit with an umbrella over his head; what the audience did in that shower-bath has not been recorded."
John Cross, secretary of development and college relations, commented on the history of commencement in an e-mail to the Orient.
"In the early years of the College each student was required to deliver a Commencement speech in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew," he said.
"It is less a case of prohibiting non-student Commencement speakers than it is an affirmation of faith in the students who have received a Bowdoin liberal arts education," Cross wrote. "Over the years the student speakers have included future governors, distinguished scholars and teachers, business leaders, college presidents, physicians, authors, scientists, and leaders in all walks of life."
As the graduating classes grew larger and the ceremony grew longer, the number of speakers was gradually pared down to two. Today, speakers are chosen by a sub-committee of the Student Fellowship and Research Committee (SFRC), chaired by Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Nagle. After submitting proposed speeches in written form, finalists present their addresses in person to the sub-committee, which consists of five faculty members and two SFRC staff members.
"The tradition has been viewed by many alumni and faculty as an expression of the College's democratic ideals," said Cross.
Adams, though, sees the process as anything but democratic.
"It doesn't strike me as strange that students speak, but it does strike me as strange that the students don't choose," he said. "It's your voice, but students have no say."
As Class President, Adams will give a brief address, making him the closest the Class of 2009 will get to an elected speaker. The speech is primarily focused on the presentation of the class gift.
"This is not a popularity contest. It's an opportunity for, and an honor for, members of the class to get up and give a substantive talk to the entire assembled group," said Mills.
Although he saw potential for more student influence, either in an enlarged role for the Class President or perhaps at the Baccalaureate Ceremony, Mills prefers the system of committee review to an open vote.
"I think it is more likely that you...get a substantive talk out of the process that we have today," he said.
"I am not opposed to having another group, possibly including students, select the student commencement speakers," said Nagle.
In any case, no one is apt to miss the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew come Commencement. While the addresses generally scored high marks with listeners, "the speakers were not always the best scholars in these languages," wrote Hatch. He recalls the 1810 Greek oration of a student named Wise, "noted for his collection of tobacco pipes and his constancy in using them," and an 1813 oration in Hebrew, "or what purported to be that language," by a student named King.
"Nehemiah Cleaveland says of King, 'He rubbed along through college in some unaccountable way, as others have done before and since.'" Wrote Hatch, "He is one of the few alumni of whom the college lost all trace."