Khan represents MIT mission

How are commencement speakers selected?

Salman A. Khan ’98 — founder of the Khan Academy and MIT’s 146th commencement keynote speaker — has found a new popularity at his alma mater. The Tech’s Tuesday article on Khan’s selection as commencement speaker had been shared on Facebook 453 times as of yesterday evening. But where did the idea to select Khan, the youngest commencement speaker in at least 30 years, come from?

There are two major stages in the speaker selection process.

First, a group of students and faculty from the Commencement Committee form a subcommittee that creates a list of 10–20 potential commencement speakers, unranked. Next, the list is given to President Susan J. Hockfield, who makes the final call. Hockfield may pick someone who does not appear on the subcommittee’s shortlist.

The subcommittee is charged with finding speaker candidates who “resonate with MIT’s mission and message,” said Nathaniel S. Fox ’12, senior class president and Commencement Committee member. Candidates cannot be “just entertainers,” said Fox, unless they make other notable or significant contributions to society. Entertainers are often suggested by students, he added, who want “big brand names.”

President Hockfield is “ultimately the driving factor” in speaker selection, Fox said. In an interview with The Tech last year, Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 noted that “Hockfield takes the list seriously and gives all input great consideration,” and said that the final selection is often someone who appeared on the shortlist.

Grimson said that the shortlist sent to the president this year had about 10–15 suggestions and that the “bulk” of it came from input from students.

Student representatives are asked to solicit feedback from their constituencies to help prepare the shortlist. This year, Fox and Graduate Student Council President Alex J. Evans G represented the undergraduate senior class and graduate students, respectively. In September, Fox distributed a survey via email to the senior class to gather ideas for the commencement day speaker.

Fox said that some popular suggestions from the survey included Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and Steve Jobs, but could not comment on whether those suggestions made it to the shortlist. “A lot” of respondents were interested in Khan, he added, but declined to comment on whether Khan made it to the shortlist.

“The past few years there’s been this dissatisfaction with the lack of famous speakers,” said Fox, but added that he was pleased with this year’s pick.

“Sal’s story of leaving his lucrative job in finance behind in pursuit of a greater calling is also inspiring,” said Fox in a statement to the MIT News Office. “Many of us often talk about that crazy dream of ours, that one thing we’d love to do if money didn’t matter. Sal is a man who not only left money to pursue his dream, but has succeeded in creating something truly remarkable: a free world-class education to anyone with a basic Internet connection.”

The Undergraduate Association President has participated in the speaker selection meeting for at least the past two years, but was absent from this year’s process. Current UA President Allan E. Miramonti ’13 says he does not recall being informed of a meeting.

“To give them the benefit of the doubt, it was just a technical slip-up,” Miramonti said. “At the end of the day, I’m happy with the selection that was made.”

Executive Officer for Commencement Gayle M. Gallagher and Grimson, the Commencement Committee chair, declined to comment on Miramonti’s absence. Gallagher said that Fox and Evans did an “excellent job” soliciting feedback from their constituencies and participating in the shortlist creation.

This is also the first time since at least 1994 that the UA President is not a senior, though it is unclear whether that has a bearing on Miramonti’s participation.

Noting that students often request “entertainers” and “brand names,” Fox suggested that MIT consider Harvard College’s scheme for graduation — hold a “class day” before commencement and invite a fun, “brand name” speaker. At commencement, invite a speaker who meets MIT’s traditional criteria.

MIT, unlike other colleges, does not provide monetary compensation to commencement speakers, though it does pay expenses and provide a small gift.