Here is what we know: First, most seniors would not have asked New York Gov. George Pataki to speak at Class Day.
Second, comparatively more prominent individuals in other fields were probably not asked to speak — actress (Jodie Foster), author (Toni Morrison), musician (Bono), peace-maker (Nelson Mandela), or even a TV character (Martin Sheen, as President Bartlett from “The West Wing”).
Third, something went wrong. And this wasn’t just the fault of our senior class representatives. There’s a fundamental problem with Yale’s graduation speaker system. Let’s consider these issues one at a time.
I have not come across a single senior who is excited to hear Pataki speak.
Why? He lacks the stature and caliber that a Yale Class Day speaker should have. I assume that the members of the senior class and their graduation guests should know the Yale Class Day speaker. Friends from California had to remind their parents who Pataki was, not to mention parents in Asia who just asked “George who?”
The truth is, we have all been to Master’s Teas or lectures with more exciting and well-known people. Try Sandra Day O’Connor, Tom Friedman, Al Pacino, Bill Clinton, Ernesto Zedillo, or Salman Rushdie, to name only a few. I do not believe Governor Pataki would have actually made the top 10 list for the senior class.
I would bet my Yale degree that he would not even make the top 50 if we actually polled everyone today.
And this is not about partisan politics. Most Yalies would respect politicians from both sides of the aisle who are dynamic, provocative and well-known. Condoleeza Rice, John McCain, Donald Rumsfeld, Tom Daschle, John Kerry, and Joseph Lieberman immediately jump into my mind as good examples.
Pataki just does not yet have the stature. Some say Pataki is actually presidential material; I say we wait until he rises to the occasion. Others say he showed leadership after Sept. 11, which he did — but what about Rudy Giuliani or Tom Ridge?
Second, the invitation to Pataki seems to imply that government is the only field from which we want our Class Day speaker. It seems to me that if you cannot get your top five political choices (Colin Powell, Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Tony Blair), you should move to another area.
Try these on for starters: Jerry Seinfeld, Conan O’Brien, Matt Groening, Philip Roth, Mary Robinson, Bill Gates, Amartya Sen, Paul Newman, Michael J. Fox, Magic Johnson, James Wolfenson, Michael Jordan, Christopher Reeve, Henry Kissinger, Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, John Nash, Stephen Hawking, Robin Williams, Bill Cosby, Michael Ondaajte, J.M. Coetzee, the Dalai Lama, Paul McCartney, Elie Wiesel. I am sure the senior class suggested many respected leaders across many fields — why did we jump to a low-choice (or non-choice) politician before asking other, more dynamic people?
Sadly, much of this problem is due to the way Yale handles graduation. We should have both a Commencement speaker and a Class Day speaker. Such a system usually means graduates hear one very prominent person and another person who is more in touch with the class or the university.
Harvard employs such a smart and stimulating system.
But if you only have one speaker, it must be a top-stature choice that the majority is actually excited about. Every year, Yale bestows several honorary degrees to true leaders in various fields — surely most of these people could provide a worthy Commencement address.
We have to give incentives for our speakers to commit to speak at Yale. With no honorary degree or active campaigning from the University (i.e. President Levin working the phones), we get the likes of David Gergen, Bob Woodward, and George Pataki — all fine people, but just not exciting. It is simply unrealistic to expect students to be able to secure speakers without full University support.
At the same time, this being Yale, I would not be surprised if the student body had connections to all of the above-mentioned possibilities within one degree of separation. It seems that we should bring these two elements together. However, the end result of our system as it stands is a disappointed graduating class and humiliation for Yale.
In closing, I respectfully hope Gov. Pataki declines our invitation because it would be embarrassing to have a speaker that so many of us do not see as fit for Class Day’s prominence. Governor, it is nothing personal — you are just not yet quite where we want you to be. I hope we ask other prominent leaders in other fields besides government if he does decline.
And if nobody from the outside who meets our standards can come, then I think the senior class should consider a thoughtful speech from one of Eli’s own teachers — Paul Kennedy, Mahzarin Banaji, Harold Koh, et al. This is our graduation — let us decide.
Ranjan Goswami is a senior in Davenport College.