commencement speaker

Only five of the 14 commencement speakers since 2000 have been women— most recently Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Although the University has hosted numerous commencement speakers since its first commencement ceremony in 1884, during the past 24 years only about one-third of those speakers have been female.

Horacio Villarreal, former Student Government president, said diversity is one of many factors that influence the decision for commencement speaker.

“I don’t know exactly why that happens,” Villarreal said when referring to the lower percentage of female speakers. “A lot of it just has to do with the current time and with what’s going on in the world. We try to pick someone relevant to UT, who has gone through challenges, and who will be motivating to students.”

Andrew Clark, former Senate of College Councils president, said many different student groups provide input toward selecting a commencement speaker. 

“Student leaders from the Senate of College Councils, the assembly and Student Government get together with the [University] president to decide who the speaker is going to be,” Clark said. “We make a rough list of initial names from input we get from our constituents, and then we vet them and the list gets narrowed down.”

Several factors, such as alumni status and recognition, influence the choice for commencement speaker, according to Clark.

“Being a UT grad is always a top priority,” Clark said. “Then, we want someone well-recognized — particularly if they have national recognition around the time of commencement.”

Clark said speaking ability is also a priority.

“We look for someone we think would be captivating for students to hear,” Clark said. “It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for us to pick someone who’s going to put people to sleep.”

Villarreal said he thinks more students should be involved in the selection of a commencement speaker.

“Every student should have a say in sharing their opinions,” Villarreal said.

The last female speaker the University chose was Sanya Richards-Ross, a gold medal Olympic sprinter and Texas alum who spoke at the 2013 commencement ceremony. Since 2000, five of the 14 commencement speakers have been female. 

Michael Morton, former Senate of College Councils president, said the University chose Richards-Ross because of her accomplishments and alumni status.

“The students selected her because she [was] a leader at the top of her profession who achieved success through integrity and hard work,” Morton said in a statement released by the University.

Clark said diversity was still a main goal in choosing commencement speakers. 

“UT has a lot of diverse graduates,” Clark said. “There are a lot of people who have gone out there and, as the University motto says, ‘changed the world.’”

The presidents of UT’s three student governance organizations selected U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as the commencement speaker for the May 21 event on the Main Mall. The senator will speak at a UT graduation ceremony for the second time. Hutchison also addressed the graduating class of 1998. As an alumna of the class of 1962, law school graduate and former cheerleader, Hutchison agreed to speak to the University at no charge. “It is particularly gratifying to be able to speak to the graduates of my alma mater,” Hutchison said, in a statement. “Like so many generations of UT graduates, life’s challenges and potential awaits them.” Student Government President Scott Parks, Graduate Student Assembly President Manny Gonzalez and Senate of College Councils President Chelsea Adler decided that Hutchison should speak at the ceremony because of her UT background and her career. Adler said the trio attended meetings in President William Powers’s office starting last summer to come to a decision. “It was an informal consensus,” Adler said. “Hutchison was on the list from the beginning.” While Parks, Adler and Gonzalez had the final say, Adler said the bodies of students that each president led suggested other potential commencement speakers. Powers also had oversight of the decision. Adler said Powers met Hutchison and said he was sure that there was no chance of the senator turning the opportunity into a political situation. “We see her as a Longhorn first and a Republican second,” Adler said. “She’s not quite as polarizing as other politicians.” Notable speakers from past commencements include President Lyndon B. Johnson and computer pioneer Michael Dell. Actress Marcia Gay Harden spoke last year. College Republicans President Justin May said he thinks Hutchison is the best choice for speaker in his four years at UT. May said he thinks Hutchison is one of the more bipartisan politicians. University Democrats President Billy Calve said he looks forward to hearing Hutchison’s remarks. “Commencement is a time to celebrate the achievements of UT graduates and put partisan politics aside,” Calve said.