Drawn from an elite club

Why is it always MIT Corporation members that speak at graduation?

The selection of Xerox CEO Ursula M. Burns as commencement speaker marks the fourth time in five years that MIT has chosen a member of the MIT Corporation, raising the question: How are final speakers are chosen?

According to Gayle M. Gallagher, executive officer for Commencement, student and faculty members of the Commencement Committee compiled a list of prospective commencement speakers. The list of recommended speakers is then given to President Susan J. Hockfield, who makes the final decision. According to Chair of the Commencement Committee W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, Hockfield is not obligated to pick from the list of recommended speakers.

When asked for names of other speaker candidates, Grimson said that information regarding the list of recommended speakers is confidential.

Gallagher said that the commencement committee “looks for speakers whose message— accomplishments, professional journey, national or global service — would resonate well with our students.”

According to Burns’ son Malcolm Bean ’11, Burns has known she “wanted to speak at commencement for a long time.” Notified in August of her selection, she accepted earlier than previous speakers, allowing the MIT community to be informed as early as November.

Bean also knew there would be a good chance his mother would speak at his own graduation. “My mother first served on the ESD (Engineering Systems Division) sub-committee. She has always been impressed by MIT, but her enthusiasm for MIT was really sparked by ESD and has developed with her time on with the MIT Corporation,” Bean said.

Burns joined the Corporation shortly after 2007. She now currently holds a five-year term membership that ends in 2013.

According to Bean, Burns upholds many MIT “ideals as well as its commitment to vigorous education and furthering engineering.” Bean said, “Burns fits well as next speaker and really embodies what MIT is about.”

The student representatives responsible for compiling student input include UA president Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11, Class 2011 President Anshul Bhagi ’11, and former GSC president Gleb M. Akselrod G and current GSC president Ulric J. Ferner G.

Ferner said, “It is appropriate and fantastic that someone who has a link and supports MIT is speaking at the University’s 150th Anniversary.”

Bhagi said that Burns’ leadership and success as an engineer makes her a good choice as the commencement speaker.

According to Bean, one of the main focuses of Burns’ speech will be acknowledging that we are all “fortunate to come to MIT and remembering we didn’t do this by ourselves.” Bean said Burns wants to emphasize “We are fortunate to have talent, financial support, and family support. It’s our chance to improve the world. We should use the talent gained from MIT and not waste it.”

As the 2011 speaker, Burns will follow in suit of Corporation members such as 2010 speaker Raymond S. Stata ’57, 2009 speaker Governor Deval Patrick, and 2007 speaker and former MIT president Charles M. Vest.

Choosing a speaker

According to the MIT Commencement website, some of the responsibilities the Corporation and its committees hold are “reviewing and providing guidance on strategic directions, approving annual budgets, electing the President (as well as the other Corporation officers), and being available (individually as well as collectively) to advise the President on issues that he/she may wish to raise with them.”

According to Gallagher, “In May following elections, student leadership solicits feedback from their constituents. Once compiled we meet to review all of the suggestions and to prepare a list of names for the President.” Grimson said a short list “10 to 12 names are usually recommended unranked” after extensive discussion on each nominee.

Ferner said that students are invited to submit up to three names for speakers and every nominee that has more than one nomination is discussed in length. Ferner also noted in the case of graduate students, there was “a bias towards speakers from technical and research backgrounds.”

Student members of the Commencement Committee said they were pleased with the overall process, and the level of student input.

Ferner said that he was particularly “impressed and happy with how proactive administration is in seeking student input.”

Bhagi said, “It is easy to think students should pick the name for a speaker, but everyone needs their voice and opinion heard.”

Grimson said, “Hockfield takes the list seriously and gives all input great consideration.” According to Grimson, there has been frequent overlap in this list and the chosen speakers in previous years.

Grimson added that MIT tends to exclude “entertainers” as it is an “honor to speak at MIT.” According to Grimson, although MIT does pay expenses and provides a small unique gift to speakers, the Institute does not provide monetary compensation like some other colleges.

Grimson said that it is rare for nominees to turn down the invitation for lack of a speaking fee.

MIT does not offer honorary degrees to its commencement speakers for similar reasons. “MIT students put four years of incredible hard work into earning their degrees. It doesn’t feel right to just give one away,” Grimson said.