Commencement 2013: From Failure to Fiasco


Dear Willard College Faculty and Administrators,

Over the past month, I’ve been deluged with letters about next week’s commencement speaker. Who is it? “It” is complicated.

Through the Office of Media Processing, we surveyed campus groups to get a sense of what sorts of speakers might be of interest. The top categories for speaker included “someone who has worked to improve the lives of people in Africa or Latin America” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu was mentioned several times), “someone engaged in social entrepreneurship,” “an actor/actress who has made important contributions to the arts” (Sean Penn and John Stewart were top choices), and “someone in the U.S. who has fought for social justice.”

I then appointed a task force of my top administrators, including Dr. Horatio Eichmann, to develop a working list. We thought the list balanced student interest with cost, and each of the invited speakers would have brought significant press to the college.

Top of the list was President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, international legal complexities rendered a visit to the United States quite difficult. We also came to understand that despite his early success as an anti-colonial revolutionary, his reputation of late is problematic.

Our second choice was Efraín Rios Montt, former president of Guatemala. It seemed to us that Willard College should tap into the whole “Latino thing,” and his presence on campus promised to bolster our somewhat anemic enrollment by students of color. The same day that the invitation was issued, news reports emerged that he was about to be convicted of genocide. We crossed him off the list, and I asked Eichmann to dig deeply into the collective wisdom of the assembled and to please go light.

Kim Kardashian, whose youngest half-sister applied to Willard, was accepted, but declined to enroll, initially expressed interest. When we learned of the actress’ speaker fee, we had to back out. We faced similar problems with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Senator John Edwards, and former congressman Anthony Weiner.

The next morning, he came back with Gerald P. Boyle, an attorney known for his defense work in difficult cases. Everyone loves the dedicated and courageous attorney fighting to exonerate the innocent. One of those clients was Jeffrey Dahmer.

At this point, we were running out of options when the Dean of Business, Larry Madoff, suggested Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch. Jeffries’ work with A&F has been an inspiration not only to many of our students, but has of late inspired Willard’s Office of Marketing, Sales, and Promotion. The last three years of capital campaign and student recruitment were modeled on A&F. Jeffries’ 2006 interview where he laid out A&F’s philosophy was instrumental in some major changes at Willard.

“[Sex is] almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that. In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told the site. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Discussions ensued, and Mr. Jeffries expressed interest in reaching out to young people who wanted to hear the A&F message. He even agreed to waive his speaker’s fee. And then last week, a small problem developed. Apparently, A&F’s marketing has upset some communities. Especially problematic was the Day after Mother’s Day protest in Chicago.

At this point, Commencement is in two weeks, and we have no one. I’ve directed my office, therefore, to work through Speakers, Inc. One of their speakers, Matt Foley, comes highly recommended and we hope to have a signed contract by the end of the day.


President Henry Cotton

P.S. The good news is that we did not invite AIG’s CEO, Robert Benmosche. No one needs that sort of speech.

3 thoughts on “Commencement 2013: From Failure to Fiasco

  1. Javier F Marion

    Sub Comandante Marcos would deliverable a memorable address that would reach students, parents, and faculty. He would also draw attention to College and its mission. What exactly is the mission again?

  2. Indiana Concerned Citizens for the Protection of America

    Dear President Cotton,
    We in the state of Indiana have followed Willard College closely since its transition from a psychiatric hospital and have great interest in supporting your innovative institutional mission and values. We note your search for Commencement speakers and would like to offer the suggestion of Purdue University President Mitch Daniels. His record as Governor and University President speaks for itself:

    We believe President Daniels is available for booking for Commencement Addresses in 2015 and 2016 (as he has blocked out most of the 2013-14 school year for learning how to read).

    Please consider our request,
    Indiana Concerned Citizens for the Protection of America

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