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CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE:
The Feb. 10 article about MIT’s 2009 commencement speaker incorrectly stated that Vivian Tang ’09, Class of 2009 president, was not involved in the committee that recommended choices for the 2009 speaker. Although she was not officially a member of the committee, she was consulted to collect speaker suggestions from students and provided feedback when the committee was compiling the list of recommended speakers.

Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, was chosen to be the guest speaker at MIT’s 2009 Commencement Ceremony on June 5. Patrick, the second ever African-American elected American governor, has already spoken at MIT twice before; here he is seen outlining a $3.8 billion bond proposal on April 9, 2008 in the Tang Auditorium.
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Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, leader in clean energy policy and proponent of education and research, will give this year’s commencement address. Those involved in the decision and student leaders praised the choice, while students’ opinions ranged from impressed to indifferent.

Patrick is the second elected African American governor in United States history. He attended Harvard College, graduating in 1978, and Harvard Law School, graduating in 1982. As the governor, Patrick is an ex-officio member of the MIT Corporation.

Professor William E. Grimson PhD ’80, chair of the Commencement Committee, said that Patrick has “been a pretty vocal spokesman for … green energy and the environment.”

Grimson added that Patrick is working closely with academia to accomplish his policy goals. The governor’s biotech initiative, which offers a combined $1 billion to companies and universities working on biotechnology, will “really boost” biotechnology in Massachusetts, he said.

Oaz Nir, president of the Graduate Student Council, said that “the choice highlights the way in which MIT research, particularly on energy, is in dialogue with policy decisions.”

Grimson agreed. “It’s a good choice for someone to speak not just from an industry perspective, but a government perspective,” he said.

Student Reactions

Some students voiced praise for Patrick’s accomplishments while others suggested more well-known speakers.

Julia N. Roberts ’10, an undergraduate studying Civil and Environmental Engineering, said “I don’t know too much about him, but I do know he’s environmentally friendly.” “In a year when politics are so important, I think it’s a strong choice.”

“I don’t follow much local politics,” said Swastik Kopparty G, a graduate student in Computer Science. But, Kopparty did remember that President Barack Obama was accused of plagiarizing one of Patrick’s speeches during his campaign.

“At least it’s better than Charles Vest,” said Eloisa M. De Castro ’09, who felt that Vest — the 2007 choice — was too closely associated with MIT. She suggested “someone really big — like Obama.”

Obama?

The possibility of President Barack Obama coming to speak at MIT’s commencement in the coming years might not be too far-fetched, according to Grimson. He said that U.S. presidents traditionally speak at three college commencements a year.

Given that MIT’s mission is very compatible with Obama’s platform of energy innovation, Grimson is “very hopeful, with no evidence either way,” that Obama would choose to speak at MIT’s commencement in the coming years.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton decided to deliver an address. That year, MIT had two commencement speakers. David D. Ho, a leading AIDS researcher and the original choice, spoke alongside Clinton.

Selecting the Speaker

The commencement speaker is chosen by the Office of the President. A group appointed by the President known as the Commencement Committee makes suggestions to the president. The committee comprises around twenty faculty, students, and members of the administration.

Student members include the Undergraduate Association president and vice president, the Graduate Student Council president and vice president, and the senior year class president and vice president.

A subcommittee solicits ideas from students and faculty, then reviews the suggestions, which are “on the order of hundreds,” and compiles them into a list of “about 10” names, according to Grimson. This list, after being reviewed by the rest of the committee, is submitted to the president.

Grimson said the committee considers the speaking skill of candidates, whether or not their work connects to MIT, and whether they will be well-received by students.

“Personally, I would love to see Robin Williams,” said Grimson. But he explained that the potential speaker needs to have a message that connects in some way to MIT.

Because the process of securing a commencement speaker takes a long time, the committees make recommendations for future years, according to Grimson. For example, Vivian Tang ’09, senior class president, was not involved in the committee that planned this year’s commencement speaker. She is on the committee that will recommend choices for next year’s commencement speaker.

Grimson said that “most of the time” the speaker is on the list of the committee’s recommendations. It happens “very, very frequently,” he said. However, since the final decision is the president’s, there have been times when the selected speaker was not on the committee’s list. Grimson would not comment whether Patrick was on last year’s list, since the lists stay confidential.