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Vartan Gregorian joins distinguished company

Eileen Duffy | Thursday, March 17, 2005

In just under two months, Vartan Gregorian will give the principal speech at Notre Dame’s 160th commencement exercises, joining a list of other academics, government leaders, religious officials, journalists and celebrities.

According to Father Peter Jarret, counselor to University President Father Edward Malloy (whose office selects the commencement speaker), Notre Dame strives for diversity in its selection.

“We try to find someone from the political world, someone from the academic world, someone from the entertainment industry; we look for a broad range over the course of the years,” he said.

Although Gregorian has served in a variety of roles, the majority of his career has been in academics. He came to America to study at Stanford University, eventually earning his doctorate; from there, he taught at various universities, ultimately serving as Brown University’s president.

Notre Dame has welcomed other academic officials in the past, such as former Yale University president Kingman Brewster, Jr. in 1972, former Harvard University Pres-ident Derek Bok in 1987 and Stanford Provost (now Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice, a Notre Dame alumna.

Jarret said Notre Dame’s emphasis on intellectualism in choosing commencement speakers reflects the University’s values.

“Given Notre Dame’s academic reputation,” he said, “that’s the type of person that would come here.”

Professor A. James McAdams, the director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, said he thinks Gregorian is “a terrific choice” because of his background in higher education, and his ability to “speak directly and with authority to some of the intellectual traditions for which Notre Dame is highly regarded.”

“I know that, at times, some students would rather have a speaker who is widely known among the general public, such as a glossy, glitzy and glamorous personality from the entertainment industry,” he said. “… Gregorian’s advantage is that he demonstrates [the University’s] central commitment to educational values.”

Notre Dame’s early commencement speakers were not very well known, “with one exception,” according to a 2001 press release by Dennis Brown, associate director of Notre Dame News and Information.

Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had sent two sons to Notre Dame and a daughter to Saint Mary’s during the war, addressed the graduating class of 1865. One of his sons had died in 1863, making the visit, according to Brown, “emotionally trying” for Sherman.

“The New York Tablet reported that Sherman received a ‘hearty cheer’ from the Notre Dame students,” Brown wrote. “He spoke at length of the ‘dangers of the battle of life’ awaiting the graduates, but assured them of the ‘final triumph of the right.'”

In the 20th century, Notre Dame began to attract various government officials, eventually hosting Presidents Eisenhower (1960), Carter (1977), Reagan (1981), George H. Bush (1992) and George W. Bush (2001). John F. Kennedy spoke in 1950 as a congressman.

In addition, the University has hosted Dr. William Mayo, co-founder of the Mayo Clinic (1936); FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (1942) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (1957).

According to Brown’s release, since 1960, the commencement speakers have been “increasingly well known, coming from all walks of life,” including the aforementioned academic officials.

As for governmental figures (besides presidents), the University has welcomed, most notably, Henry Cabot Lodge in 1962, Eugene McCarthy in 1967, the president of El Salvador (and Notre Dame alumnus) Jose Napoleon Duarte in 1985 and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000.

In keeping with its Catholic mission, Notre Dame hosted Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1983; in 1986, Bishop James Malone addressed the graduates.

Notre Dame has not been without McAdams’ so-called “glitzy and glamorous” celebrity commencement speakers, such as actor Bill Cosby in 1990 and former commissioner of baseball Peter Ueberroth in 1989.

From the field of journalism came William Buckley, Jr. in 1978, Tom Brokaw in 1993, Mark Sheilds in 1997 and Tim Russert in 2002.

Whether or not Notre Dame chooses a “household name,” said Brown, the University always looks for a commencement speaker who has somehow made an impact.

“… [W]e seek to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to our world,” Brown said. “Some of these people are more well-known than others, but all of them are extraordinarily accomplished in their fields.”