Honorary Degrees Committee explains Commencement selection process

After the announcement of this year’s honorary degree winners sparked heated discussion among students on Williams Students Online (WSO), the Record took a closer look at the Honorary Degrees Committee. Although the committee members declined to explain specific choices, they shed light on the selection process.

The Honorary Degrees Committee recommends candidates for five honorary degrees awarded during Commencement, two of which go to the Commencement and Baccalaureate speakers. The committee, which presented its final recommendations to the President’s Office and trustees in March, traditionally comprises two students each from the graduating class and current junior class, one faculty member from each division, the College marshal, the College president and eight trustees. Students currently on the committee are Ben Davidson ’10, Scott Olesen ’10, Nick Arnosti ’11 and Will Slack ’11; faculty members are David Dethier, professor of geology, Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology, and Gretchen Long, associate professor of history. Trustee Clayton Spencer ’77 chairs the committee.

The committee begins the selection process by considering a wide array of individuals without regard to feasibility or other concerns. Upon joining, Olesen was “unsure whom [he] should initially put forward,” but subsequently discovered that “the trustees and the students are so well-connected that there’s no individual too far removed to not be initially considered.” The number of candidates under consideration fluctuates because the selection process does not begin entirely anew each year. In addition to considering new prospective honorees, the committee draws from a cumulative list of previous candidates who were not selected for various reasons.

Olesen cited the size of this running list as a factor in determining the number of candidates the committee must initially consider. “In a lucky year, where you have a long list from previous years, the initial pool is much smaller,” he said. “However, if the list is shorter, we must consider a much bigger pool.” The cumulative list is confidential and the committee declined comment on me  mbers or size.
Once the committee compiles its general list, it considers candidates’ feasibility. As an example, Olesen cited President Barack Obama. Although several people affiliated with the College are connected with the President in some way, these connections are not necessarily sufficient to draw him to Commencement.

The committee’s diversity lends the group a better understanding of realistic candidates. That is, the inclusion of both juniors and seniors allows the committee access to a larger swath of the student body when considering candidates. Faculty members have connections to prominent members of their disparate fields, while trustees not only bring expertise in diverse backgrounds but also are well-connected by virtue of their positions. “The difference in how people contribute is based on who they are and where they come from,” Olesen said. “For example, students have a good sense of whom their peers would be interested in.” However, committee members are not explicitly delegated roles based on their position.

From its list of feasible candidates, the committee compiles a ranked list of recommendations. College Marshal Jefferson Strait, professor of physics, serves as a nonvoting member of the committee and described its “short list” as “including options that provide for plenty of leeway.” Invited honorees might decline for logistical reasons and sometimes express interest in future commitments. For example, one of this year’s honorees, Stephanie Wilson, is a NASA astronaut and was originally unsure whether she would be on Earth on the day of Commencement.

Otherwise strong candidates are sometimes ultimately rejected to facilitate diversity in the honorees’ intellectual pursuits and demographic makeup; these candidates often end up on the list for future consideration. Although the committee’s role is merely advisory – the trustees and the President make the final decisions – Strait is not aware of any instances of trustees completely removing a candidate from consideration.

Olesen enumerated several criteria governing the committee’s final recommendations. A principal criterion is a candidate’s connection to the College. “There is an incredible sea of people deserving of honorary degrees,” Olesen said. “An institution like Harvard excels at getting the biggest people to come, regardless of whether they care about Harvard. Williams seeks out people with strong connections to the College, someone who would be honored by coming – not just someone who would collect degrees.”
While it is not a requirement for honorary degree recipients to have strong ties to Williams, Olesen described the connection as “often highly beneficial.” “The committee likes to give degrees to people who are likely to want to receive an honorary degree, and a connection to the College makes it more likely that people would want to come,” he said. According to Olesen, this philosophy is a primary reason why honorees are not paid. “They’re strictly here for the honorary degree,” he said. “If you pay them to come, it transforms an occasion during which we’re all honored at each others’ presence into an occasion that’s more like having engaged an entertainer.”

Olesen cited several other factors as pertinent to selection, including a speaker’s ability to give a speech appropriate to Commencement. “We want to have someone who’s topical. It’s better to have someone noted for something that’s happened recently, but we don’t want to get someone too recent, because they haven’t had much of a career.” Olesen also expressed the goal of Commencement being a purely positive experience. “We want something exciting without being controversial,” Olesen said.

Olesen also responded to the idea that student dissatisfaction with Commencement speaker selection has increased in recent years. “There will always be people who are disappointed,” he said. “The committee is willing to trade ‘wow factor’ for more interesting speakers, closer connections to Williams and who can give a good speech.”