By Edward Ngai
Last week, the senior class presidents announced that Richard Engel ’96, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, will deliver the address at the 124th Commencement. At least one Daily editor is excited that the speaker is a journalist, for the fourth time in thirty years. But elsewhere in the office, a more muted reaction. “I’m not going to lie, I had to look him up,” one senior told me.
Richard Engel is a safe choice, albeit one who will need to speak directly to Stanford’s mission. Unlike the august institutions of the East Coast primarily dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, Stanford’s founding charter makes explicit a commitment to public service imbued in its alumni. “The instruction offered must be such as will qualify students for personal success and direct usefulness in life,” it reads. “They should understand that it is offered in the hope and trust that they will become thereby of greater service to the public.”
It is hard to argue that Engel has not contributed to society — I certainly cannot disparage journalism in that way. But the world is full of distinguished speakers, some whose experience speaks uniquely to the wishes of Leland and Jane Stanford. It has been a most challenging year — for the University, the U.S., and the world. Today, campus is more divided than ever: divestment wars, civil disobedience, fraternity life and more. These issues, symptomatic of much greater conflicts, should acutely remind graduates of the challenges that society faces and our responsibility to be part of the solution. Here are a few names who have done that and more.
- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The reformist president of Liberia and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Johnson Sirleaf is clearly a weighty enough name for Commencement. Her remarkable story — fleeing twice from her own country and returning both times — is a courageous tale of perseverance in the face of overwhelming difficulty. She would also arrive with a big feather in her cap: after months of rapid-response diplomacy, the New York Times declared yesterday that the Ebola epidemic was ending. For a taste of what she might say, take a look at her last commencement speech, delivered at Harvard in 2011.
- Elon Musk. There is hardly a sexier name amongst Stanford undergraduates. The challenges he chooses to solve and the unquestionable successes of Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX have made him the paragon of Silicon Valley excellence. The man who dreamed up the zero-emission, 400-horsepower, unbreakable car is also uniquely forward-looking. In June, Musk released all of Tesla’s patents into the public domain and sent a powerful message: the real competition is not between car companies but instead between clean energy innovation and rising carbon emissions. Let’s bring him back to Stanford — he’s earned an honorary Ph.D. despite dropping out in 1995 after only two days in the applied physics program.
- Shigeru Ban. Wouldn’t it be great if Stanford’s push in the arts were backed by something more than money? A commitment to sustainability also underlies the work of Ban, a Japanese architect famous for his use of low-cost, low-tech, reusable materials like paper, cardboard and PVC pipe. He designed refugee camps in Rwanda as well as in Kobe, Japan after a cataclysmic 1995 earthquake by “designing emergency housing with beer-crate foundations and paper-tube walls.” Who could be a better example of a humanist impacting the world’s most pressing issues through art?
- Terry Root. By my count, the last time a Stanford professor addressed the graduating class was over thirty years ago, when U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, a professor of public policy, delivered the address in 1983. In the absence of a Class Day lecture, it would perhaps be fitting for a faculty member to speak. Root, a biology professor, was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with her co-authors on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.
Besides her teaching and research, though, she has been a vocal advocate for women in science and for science in politics. In a field where dissenting researchers are routinely slandered and marginalized by special interest groups, she unapologetically calls on scientists to assert their results to the public in the hope that science, not noise, will drive our climate future.
Word on the street is that she will be retiring in June after inspiring and challenging countless students. What an honor it would be for us to learn from her one last time.
Stanford has only invited a handful of writers and even fewer artists to deliver the Commencement address. A quick scan of past speakers shows that we prefer political leaders, tech entrepreneurs and the occasional television journalist. Yet, over the past four years, Stanford has changed a tremendous amount. The Arts District, which didn’t exist when I was a freshman, is a testament to the new value the University places on fine arts. We should be backing that up by choosing artists and humanists to speak at Commencement. We’ve also made a pledge to fight climate change by divesting from coal. It’s a shame that, this year, we could not choose a speaker that would reinforce this commitment.
Contact Edward Ngai at edngai ‘at’ stanford.edu