The recent announcement of Oscar-winning actor and humanitarian Forest Whitaker as the 2014 commencement speaker has generated a good deal of excitement on campus.
In the past, Miami has been host to a number of notable commencement speakers including “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts, U.S. representative and civil rights activist John Lewis, U.S. representatives and Miami alumni Steve Driehaus (’88) and Paul Ryan (’92), and most recently, class of 1976 author and journalist Wil Haygood.
The process of selecting and recruiting speakers is long. It begins approximately nine months in advance. Ted Pickerill, secretary to the board of trustees and executive assistant to President David Hodge, has been on the selection committee for the past three years.
“Normally, we assemble a committee of faculty members, staff members, but most importantly students,” Pickerill said. “We have students from every academic division and also a student from the graduate program.”
The committee creates a list of characteristics in an ideal speaker and then brainstorms people who fit the criteria and will also be able to speak to the theme of the academic year, said Pickerill.
When the committee reconvenes they narrow their list of potential speakers down to five or six candidates which are then presented to Hodge. From there, Hodge reaches out to the candidate he believes would be the best fit for the year, according to Pickerill.
The theme for the 2014-15 year is “Celebrating Freedom” to commemorate Freedom Summer of 1964.
In June of 1964, volunteers from around the country, of different backgrounds gathered in Oxford, Ohio on what was then the Western College for Women for a training session in non-violence protesting, voter registration and Freedom School education. Volunteers then went down to Mississippi and spent the summer fighting.
With this year marking the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the committee was looking for someone who could speak to civil rights along with being well-known in their field, Pickerill said.
The process for reaching out to Forest Whitaker this year was unique as they made a connection through Wil Haygood. Haygood, the 2013 commencement speaker and Miami graduate, wrote the Washington Post article that inspired Whitaker’s most recent film “The Butler.”
“Wil was very excited about having someone from the movie being the commencement speaker,” Pickerill said. “Forest Whitaker is the lead character of the movie but he is also a humanitarian and a great personal example.”
Because of “unique and special circumstances” Hodge reached out to Whitaker without the help of a committee.
Hodge is responsible for reaching out to potential commencement speakers and inviting them to come to Miami. According to Pickerill, this invitation is typically sent in the form of a letter outlining the unique focus of the year and also informing speakers that part of the ceremony will be awarding them with an honorary doctorate.
Pickerill said the recruitment committee looks for candidates who are well-known and well-respected in their fields, someone who can deliver a meaningful message but also someone who contributes to the greater good of society.
Miami does not have a set fee for commencement speakers as it varies depending on who the university decides to bring in. According to Pickerill, the typical fee is anywhere in the $25-35,000 range.
“Most of the people who are commencement speakers don’t do it for the fee and I think, in many cases, they take a fee less than what they normally would for a typical speaking engagement,” Pickerill said.
Excitement is high on campus following the Whitaker announcement.
Senior, Becky Spiewak, is excited about Whitaker’s wide appeal and the energy he will bring to campus.
“I think Forest Whitaker has a very interesting background and I feel like he will be very energetic and easier for students to relate to,” Spiewak said.
Faculty and staff are also sharing in student’s excitement.
Kate Rousmaniere, associate professor and chair in the Department of Educational Leadership, said she likes that Whitaker fits well with the legacy of civil rights activism on campus.
“He’s cool because he played the main part in “The Butler” which was a really thought-provoking civil rights film, but he’s also a humanitarian in his own right,” she said.
Rousmaniere said she hopes Whitaker can challenge students to think broadly and creatively about their futures and about social change.
“He’s more than a movie star,” Rousmaniere said. “He’s got great social activist work that he does and supports and I’m really excited that we’re going to learn about that.”