Reforming the Class Day speaker selection process: Open letter to the Class Day Co-Chairs| February 27, 2020
To the Class Day Co-Chairs,
We wish to express our thoughts on the choice of the Class Day speaker for 2020 and propose improvements that could be made to the speaker selection process. As seniors, we had been looking forward to the speaker announcement for months. Many of us were disappointed when we saw that this year’s speaker was to be Marshawn Lynch, mainly because we did not feel included in the process by which this speaker was nominated and finally selected.
It goes without saying that Lynch has had an incredibly impressive career as an NFL football player and as a social activist. He has given back to his home community of Oakland through many philanthropic activities and has organized football clinics around the world. However, saying that Lynch has “unapologetically embodied and advocated for our own identities and values” (as stated in the University’s official Instagram post) without actually consulting us, the Princeton community, is paradoxical and thus questionable. We do not mean to criticize this choice of speaker in particular, but rather want to call attention to the opaque selection process for Class Day speakers.
To begin with, we feel that the set of criteria for nominees should be clearly defined and transparent to the graduating class. Based on trends in previous selections of Class Day speakers, a common thread seems to be that past speakers either share a connection with the graduation class as Princeton alumni or are widely regarded as exceptional communicators. For instance, the last two speakers have been Ellie Kemper ’02 and Senator Cory Booker. The former is a Princeton alumna and spoke about Princeton-specific experiences that many graduating seniors could relate to from the perspective of a past member of Quipfire!, Triangle, Theatre Intime, and the field hockey team. The latter is firstly associated with New Jersey and therefore Princeton, and secondly has dedicated his life to giving voice to the people of his community. In this way, the thought process behind the selection of these speakers is apparent. In the selection of Marshawn Lynch, however, it is not evident what the set of criteria for nomination are.
On receiving the email about the speaker announcement, members of the senior class who were not aware of Lynch tried to learn more about his identity and relevance to our Class Day ceremony. Among articles that praised his NFL career and philanthropic contributions, we came across articles discussing Lynch’s reticence with the media and his terse responses at press conferences. In 2013 and 2014, for example, Lynch was fined $50,000 and $100,000 for refusing to speak to the media. During the 2015 Superbowl Media Day, Lynch famously responded to multiple questions with variants of “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” With no other frame of reference, such reports caused confusion over the set of criteria that led to his nomination.
In addition to transparency issues regarding the nomination criteria, this decision reflects foundational issues in the selection process. We feel that the selection committee did not represent a broad-enough range of perspectives and did not try to compensate for this by notifying the senior class of intermediate steps in the selection process. The selection committee should have solicited our feedback on the final shortlisting of the potential candidates. If it did attempt to do so, it did not reach many of us, which is also an issue. In order to improve this process, participation and feedback should be solicited from the senior class in a similar manner to how it was solicited for the selection of the Class Day jacket or the Student Speaker Initiative. Just one such round of feedback would give all seniors a chance to have a say in selecting the speaker, will mitigate disappointment and surprise when the committee announces the final speaker, and will better reflect the interests of the graduating class.
It is undoubtedly true that no single speaker can strike a connection with every senior on campus, and there will thus inevitably be a subset of seniors who are disappointed with the selection every year. However, we believe that reforming the nomination and selection process by clarifying the procedure and by involving the senior class will definitely anticipate such concerns, giving students a better understanding and moreover a sense of ownership over the decision to invite a specific speaker.
Due to credible safety concerns, the ‘Prince’ granted anonymity to all authors of this piece on March 4, 2020.