Last week, the 2013 commencement speaker was announced: Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a leading neurosurgeon at the Johns Hopkins Hospital with an inspiring and unlikely background. I, for one, am disappointed.
For seniors, commencement is the final hurdle, a last few boiling hours on Homewood campus. We have been checked out for months, counting down the days until we can flee for greener pastures. We’ve had a good run, now let us out of here!
Behind all the pomp and ceremony (and $100 a pop graduation outfits) lies the tacit acknowledgement that commencement isn’t really for undergraduates. It’s for the parents, who want the cherished memory of sunburns and dehydration as their kid walks across a stage for five seconds. It’s for the administration, who will pat themselves on their heavily-robed backs for another class graduated, another job well done, a new group of donors to cold-call and spam.
Hopkins is not focused on the undergraduate population. We all know that, and while it can be frustrating at times, in the end it’s OK. Deans and admins attend parent events and spread the sugar on thick, lauding lofty goals that students never hear about. And a few million more in drone research and a few more retirement accounts secured: isn’t that what really matters? The students work hard to the point of poor health, and in return we get a top flight education and a shiny brand name for our résumés that will get us in the door for the rest of our lives. It would be nice to see some competent management once in a while from the higher ups, but if you’re at Hopkins, you have to self-motivate and fight for your social life. We get that we’re in this alone from day one.
We’ve had some excellent speakers at Hopkins during my four years, many who spoke to nearly empty rooms. Commencement is a guaranteed sell out. I believe that anyone booked as commencement speaker should fill any room on campus any night of the week. Basically, that means Barack Obama. I’m kidding, but only Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman were standing room in my experiences. If Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa were booked to speak on campus, would he pack the house? Oh wait, he did speak at Homewood, in March, and was able to fill Mudd Hall. And he’s scheduled to speak again in Hodson before graduation.
Why is someone with multiple speaking engagements on campus returning for commencement? One would assume that everyone who wanted to see him already did, just one month ago. I can certainly see the administrative argument: Dr. Q (as he is affectionately known) grew up in poverty in Mexico, hopped a border fence and worked his way through college as a migrant worker. And now look at him!
I find his story legitimately inspiring and a strong argument for immigration reform. But seniors want a commencement speaker they can brag about without people asking, “Who is that?” Shocking, right? I pitched Bill Simmons, the most influential voice in sports media (and therefore in American culture), but that idea was laughed out of the room. Doesn’t anyone remember that the great Howard Cosell was the speaker in 1987? A few more examples of genuinely important cultural figures that have occupied the commencement speakers slot through the years: Isaac Asmiov ’77, Dick Cavett ’79, Gary Trudeau ’90, Tom Clancy ’91, George H.W. Bush ’96, Tom Brokaw ’02, Al Gore ’05, Bill Nye (the science guy!) ’08. And of course, the angel of Hopkins, Michael Bloomberg in ’03 and ’10.
So what gives, Hopkins? You couldn’t even do us one final solid and book someone that we can tell our grandkids about. No Ai Weiwei, no Aleksey Navalny, no Kanye. Did you get scared off by the Ben Carson thing? Felt the need to stick with someone safe, who wouldn’t say anything to land you in the news again? In the end, we’re stuck with yet another doctor, the Hopkins medical stereotype hounding us all the way to the very end.