April 05, 2010
Tiny Knox College Stands Tall at Commencements
By Daniel Libit
Published by The New York Times, April 2 and April 4, 2010, reproduced with permission
All things considered, the graduation speaker who drones on before the mortarboards are sent skyward typically rates low on the college senior's list of concerns.
But Knox College, the tiny liberal arts institution in Galesburg, Ill., has put together an impressive string of orators over the last five years, and many there expect another big-name personality on June 5.
As that graduation day approaches, Knox's president, Roger L. Taylor, finds himself in a familiar state of vernal angst.
"This is frankly the most difficult part of being a college president," said Mr. Taylor, who works with the college's alumni network to secure the speakers. "It is more than nerve wracking."
Consider where the bar is set. In 2005, Knox was the site of the first college commencement address that then-Senator Barack Obama ever gave, remarks that were later included in an anthology of greatest speeches by black Americans. The following year, the college nabbed the first - and so far only - commencement speech by Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's satirical news pundit.
Former President Bill Clinton (photo right, by Bill Gaither, Register-Mail) and then his secretary of state Madeleine Albright followed Mr. Colbert. Last year's speaker was Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago who investigated the Valerie Plame affair, sent former Gov. George Ryan to jail, successfully prosecuted the publisher Conrad Black for fraud and is preparing for the corruption trial of former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations at Northwestern University, notes that his Big Ten school would like to land Mr. Colbert - who is, after all, a Northwestern graduate.
Looking at Knox's roster, Mr. Cubbage said, "That is an impressive group."
For students at Knox, this oratorical social register has become a nice cherry on top of a $40,000-a-year education. College officials believe that both enrollment and the annual gift fund have benefited.
"We're not going to win the N.C.A.A. Final Four," Mr. Taylor said, "but having these speakers puts you on the map and makes folks on campus puff out their chests a little."
Then, of course, there is the free advertising. After his 2006 speech, Mr. Colbert mentioned Knox numerous times on his show. When it was announced that Mr. Clinton would speak the next year, the Comedy Central star engaged in a running joke that the former president was riding his coattails. It culminated with Mr. Colbert's trying to burn his honorary doctoral diploma on the air. (The metal certificate would not light.)
Knox has been able to line up its staggering roster despite the fact that the college has only 1,400 students and does not pay commencement speakers, as some institutions do.
As at many other colleges, Knox begins its speaker selection process with a wish list from the graduating seniors. Polling helps class officers cull the list to 15 to 20 candidates, after which Mr. Taylor and the alumni network take over.
John Podesta, a Knox alumnus who was Mr. Clinton's White House chief of staff and now heads the left-leaning Center for American Progress, helped recruit Mr. Clinton. Mr. Podesta also first broached the prospect to Mr. Colbert while both were attending a conference in Colorado.
In the case of Mr. Obama, Mr. Taylor enlisted Chuck Smith, a Chicago lawyer, and State Senator Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, both Knox alumni. Mr. Smith said he phoned Mr. Obama to clinch the engagement as time was running out. "I can't have you, Podesta and Harmon all mad at me," he recalled Mr. Obama saying, in accepting the offer.
Mr. Taylor, a practicing lawyer in Chicago for three decades, worked Northwestern Law School connections to land Mr. Fitzgerald last year. He said two federal judges, Joan Lefkow and Elaine Bucklo, made e-mail overtures on Knox's behalf.
Knox may lack the national profile of places like the University of Chicago (where the Harvard surgeon and author Atul Gawande spoke in 2009) and Northwestern (the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis) or the alumni base of the University of Illinois (the CNBC personality Suze Orman), but Mr. Taylor has a few persuasive talking points. Knox issued its first honorary degree to Abraham Lincoln and was the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, two events that Mr. Taylor said were helpful in winning Mr. Obama's commitment.
Not everyone has been happy with the lineup. Mr. Taylor acknowledged criticism from conservative alumni that - Mr. Colbert's television-show persona aside - the college's recent speakers have come from the political left.
"There's been a little bit of hate mail," he said, "particularly for President Clinton and a little less for Obama."
Who will speak this year? Knox officials will not yet say, but Liesl Pereira, the senior class president, said students were emboldened.
"I think the previous speakers have given class officers confidence to pitch any kind of speaker we want," Ms. Pereira said.
Mr. Smith, a trustee, admitted that the choice of commencement speaker had risen to a level of the college's other major concerns.
"My bet is it continues to be a source of stress for President Taylor," he said. "But it is a good kind of stress."
Produced by the Chicago News Cooperative for The New York Times. A version of this article appeared in print on April 4, 2010, on page A25B of the National edition.
Knox College file photos below: Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Patrick Fitzgerald