To the Editor:
We write in response to your editorial of January 26, 2011 titled, “A name we can be proud of.” St. John’s takes great pride in its Graduation Ceremonies and nominates Commencement speakers to be approved by the University’s Board of Trustees each year. Your editorial brought to light several misconceptions about the process and past accounts of our graduations which need to be corrected on the record.
You state that the biggest problem in the Commencement selection process is “how little students are involved in it.” In fact, we have had student representation on the committee for quite some time – and this year we reached out to Student Government, Inc. for their recommendations from the student body. They promptly replied with their Top 10 nominees prior to the Thanksgiving break for both Queens and Staten Island. Those names were brought to the attention of the nominating committee for consideration and were formally discussed as part of our process. We will have an announcement on the 2011 speakers in the near future.
The last four years (from 2007-2010) have seen names such as George Stephanopoulos, Immaculee Ilibagiza and Bob and Suzanne Wright give the Commencement Address before 19,000-plus on the Great Lawn. Stephanopoulos, current co-anchor of nationally acclaimed Good Morning America, and former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, was not mentioned in your editorial.
Rwandan Genocide Survivor, Immaculee Ilibagiza, gave a moving and inspirational speech of her tragic struggles as she lost her family but has made it her life’s work to forgive and teach her experiences to others. She also failed to make your list.
Last year’s speakers, Bob and Suzanne Wright, leaders of the Autism crusade across the country, spoke eloquently about their life experiences with their grandchild who suffers from the diagnosis. St. John’s was founded on its Vincentian tradition and the works of St. Vincent de Paul. Ms. Ilibagiza and the Wrights were the perfect complement to that mission as St. John’s students move on and take their service-learning skills to communities locally, nationally and internationally to make a difference in the lives of so many underserved.
Finally, you refer to Maya Angelou’s attendance at our 2008 graduation. The Daily News reported that she could have been a speaker but was not formally asked by the University. What the Daily News failed to report was that the University did not find out Ms. Angelou was coming until a day or two before the ceremony – and made special accommodations for her and her family to insure their comfort on graduation day. There was no conflict between Ms. Angelou and the University.
In closing, the editorial takes us to task for having “less famous speakers” at our disposal. On the contrary, we have had our share of star power names grace the University recently. Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, received an honorary degree from St. John’s in Queens in 2007.
The event was open to students and the public. And, former Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair met with members of the St. John’s President’s Society in 2008 at a gathering of the University’s Loughlin Society in New York City. And, Alec Baldwin, who you refer to in your editorial and Meryl Streep filmed the motion picture “It’s Complicated” on the Great Lawn in the summer of 2009.
The film’s producers used St. John’s students as extras – filming our actual graduation ceremony and featuring it in the film.
In the end, the record will show that the University prides itself on providing a quality experience for all, while firmly standing by its students and mission every day. Commencement is a top priority of that unwavering commitment by University administrators, faculty and staff, who, all students can be proud to know, have their best interests at heart.
St. John’s University