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The Citizen

Canada’s selection as graduation speaker arouses debate

The announcement of Geoffrey Canada as the HKS 2013 Graduation Speaker evoked quite a bit of discussion.  In a Harvard Kennedy School group on, a thread on the choice of speaker exploded – at last count, there were 47 comments.

We invited quite a few of these students to share their views with the wider school community through the pages of The Citizen.  The article below places before a broader audience the opinions of a cross-section of students who wrote in.

The Citizen would like to emphasize that the students critical of the decision to invite Canada or those who had misgivings about the selection process, were repeatedly contacted in writing and in person for their opinions.  They chose not to submit a contribution.  Their freedom to choose in a public forum is respected by The Citizen.

Kennedy School students need a reality check

 The debate over Geoffrey Canada’s prestige and celebrity status is one of the most sickening displays of self-congratulatory elitism by students here at the Kennedy School.  The “disappointment” students feel over the selection of Canada as commencement speaker is symptomatic of a larger problem: undeserved entitlement.  Too often students here get caught up titles and reputation.  I’ve seen many of you grovel and kowtow before someone you perceive as famous and powerful like sycophantic puppy dogs. Never mind the tangible results of Canada’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone.  The problem is that you haven’t heard of Canada.

The Kennedy creed is certainly not “ask you what you can do for you.”  This is not about important connections you can make or about future bragging rights. Someone who has made concrete differences in the lives of America’s most underprivileged more than deserves to speak to you, no matter how important you think you are. Your impressive summer internship at ministry/department X or your highfalutin consulting job does not give you the right to whine about an accomplished commencement speaker.

The public service motto does not call for self-flattery or even obsequious hero-worship.  Thus I pose the following to you, all-mighty Kennedy School students: What gives you the right to criticize Canada’s appointment?  I can’t think of anything.  Take a shot of humility and shut up.

Neil Gundavda, MPP’14


Look beyond simplistic labels

I could not have been more proud to hear about Geoffrey Canada’s selection as our commencement speaker. Hearing Geoffrey Canada speak last year was one of the highlights of my time at Harvard. It was a difficult week. I was buried in work. I hadn’t felt my spirit lifted in a while, and his speech connected all the dots for me – he spoke of his moments in the classroom, the evidence-based research HCZ pioneered, how he dealt with the challenges of scaling his model nationwide, and then surprised us all by closing with a poem he had written.

While his profile cannot mimic the career path of a group as diverse as ours, his devotion to public service certainly will resonate with our collective spirit. I could not respectfully disagree more strongly with the naysayers on this one. It is a mistake, and perhaps a sign of hubris, to assume this was a result of a lack of effort.

We need to look beyond simplistic labels – American vs. international, local vs. global, household name vs. not. None of these really help us understand the scope of public service. Public service is about service – humbly setting forth to try our best to seek the greater good for those that are in some way underserved by the way our world works today.

Some of us here will go on to be heads of state, ministers of health, heads of multilateral institutions. But that is not the path that all of us will take, nor is it the path all of us should aspire to, and therefore, it’s not just those type of people from whom we will gain wisdom. That is precisely why HKS is sending all the right signals by inviting the head of the IMF one year and the head of a trailblazing organization in Harlem the next.

There are warriors out there in our world today fighting for justice with their head, heart and hands – many of whom we don’t know about and most of whom we will never will know about. Imagine a sermon from an unknown preacher who later became Dr. King. Imagine a half-filled school auditorium in 1998 to hear a newly- minted Senator Obama speak. I am hard-pressed to believe the moral fiber, mental tenacity and tireless energy of those who became our role models were built through fame. But, crucially, we don’t only need to hear from the future Gandhis and MLKs and Obamas of our generation. They accomplished what they did because they were supported by public servants and policy makers of a different type.

Aditi Chokshi, MPA/ID ’13


Commencement speech should remind us of what matters

I was impressed with the high level of passion observed at both ends of the debate. I see a commencement speech as, at most, a mere ‘reminder’ rather than a life-changing moment. Our “post-HKS” decisions, I would hope, should be based on the experiences and lessons learned up to that point and the speech itself would ideally help remind us of the core values and beliefs that have guided us here such that they remain at the essence of our decisions. I truly hope that those who believe their lives can change just on the basis of our commencement speech exceed their expectations for the best, regardless of whether they prefer X or Y. My two-cents, then, is to remind those with very low expectations that the great thing about it is that the chances of the speech being much better than expected are extremely high.

Duval Guimaraes, MPP ’13


Involve HKS students in the selection of the graduation speaker

Is it name, scope, impact or communication skills? We can spend a lot of time arguing which criterion is best for picking a commencement speaker. I don’t think that will take us anywhere. We are different people with different views and preferences and that’s great. Beyond these differences, I notice a significant number of people expressed some discontent with this year’s choice. Of course, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy, but we should definitely try to do the best we can. As a successful public servant, Geoffrey Canada will surely agree that involving the community is crucial for fostering change. So, why don’t we celebrate that spirit by letting students have a voice in the selection process? I’m pretty sure we can come up with some mechanism to create more ownership without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Nico Grosman, MPA/ID ’13


HKS Administration’s Response

Of the past four graduation speakers, (Kathleen Sebelius, Paul Farmer, Felipe Calderon and Christine LaGarde), three have had an international focus.

Over the years, students have been asked for their input on graduation speakers and Geoffrey Canada has repeatedly been among those mentioned.  Fortunately, this year we were able to get him.

HKS students have the advantage of multiple graduation speakers (university wide and HKS) so Mr. Canada will be among several speakers our student body will be able to learn from.  The issues he addresses – breaking the cycle of poverty and the role of education – are universal themes that transcend many boundaries, whether geographic, sector or industry.

In terms of process, a lengthy lead time is often required for potential speakers and invitations for the graduation address are generally issued up to 12 months in advance.  In addition, invited speakers will sometimes be unable to accept for that year, but offer to do a future event. This can often mean that ideas expressed in one year may not come to fruition until the following year or so.

HKS Communications Office