Commencement speakers at Tech

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

Do our graduation speakers represent Tech’s values?


The semesterly commencement ceremony honoring the Institute’s graduates is an event that many look forward to and hold dear to their hearts. It is a moment of celebration, an opportunity to uplift first-generation students, encourage those who have overcome other barriers and look to the future. Thus, it only follows that commencement guest speakers should have an equally impactful presence on the McCamish Pavilion stage. We at the Technique endeavor to discuss the value of commencement speakers as a whole, qualities they should possess and qualms with certain choices.

Speakers are an exciting start to an event many students will remember for the entirety of their lives. It is exciting to hear from different speakers and get their perspectives on things like entering the workforce during times of recession or job scarcity. It is a way of connecting a speaker and their story with the student body and inspiring them to do more. It is a means to see an example of someone who made a difference in their field, whether their foundation was built at your institution or not. However, at our Institute, minimal focus is put on commencement speakers, and often, the result is subpar choices in speakers. Whether they are prominent figures or not, the commencement speakers can serve as a stark dichotomy between the student body and the values Tech champions. While the Institute touts diversity and inclusivity and hosts many people of color, the commencement speakers are often white. 

Here at the Technique, we believe Tech should prioritize highlighting people of color and underrepresented minorities who have paved the way for students who followed. Figures like that could provide inspiration to students who are entering fields that are dominated by majority populations. Tech has a tendency to forget to spotlight trailblazers who had to create their place here at the Institute many years ago — a position many students may find themselves in post-grad. 

On the contrary, last Spring’s speaker duo was nothing of the sort; rather, it was two white men. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a prominent and interesting figure to those of us who care about politics, might not be fully relevant to the intended audience. Similarly, Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker, a Tech ISYE alum, leads a life that is far from relatable for the graduating class. His speech offered advice regarding the importance of family and the avoidance of material possessions while simultaneously proponing his own brand. Butker does hail from the Institute, and his speech could have been more engaging and encouraging, although it was still enjoyable for many. While we are not privy to the methods of internal review from within Tech, we feel that increased editing and streamlining of guest speeches to align with student interests and values would highly improve the experience of graduates who are looking for guidance. 

Outside of the scope of the Institute alone, many celebrities are invited to conduct commencement speeches, and sometimes are even awarded honorary degrees. However, figures like singer-songwriter Taylor Swift receiving honorary doctorate degrees can take away from the real focus of these events — the graduates. Additionally, it can nullify the achievements of students who have put years of work into accruing these degrees. Many people take on immense burden to get degrees, financially, mentally and more, and giving away degrees for fame cheapens their value.

That said, it can be enjoyable for students to see celebrities at their convocations. It is very different to see people like John Krasinski and Swift, as compared to political figures like Blinken. Further, it would be even more enjoyable if speakers offered more unique commentaries and advice about surviving post-graduation. 

Overall, commencement speakers mean a lot to those sitting in the sea of black gowns and white and gold tassels. Those students are the soul of the Institute and deserve for the commencement organizers to source exciting speakers and streamline their speeches to focus on those same students. Going forward, we hope to see more representation of minority and underrepresented groups at the podium. When walking across that stage, we all deserve to see people who look like us, shake administrators’ hands and feel prepared for anything that might come our way.

The Consensus Opinion reflects the majority opinion of the Editorial Board of the Technique, but not necessarily the opinions of individual editors.