Can Knox College top Obama, Colbert or Clinton for commencement in 2008?

Michelle Anstett

Even though its students are on winter break, the Knox College staff is gearing up for the 2008 commencement ceremonies.

But the one piece they don’t have in place just yet is the commencement speaker. In the past, Knox students have pulled out some true gangbusting speakers, which include presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in 2005; TV’s “Comedy Central” talk show host Stephen Colbert in 2006; and former president Bill Clinton in 2007. And that list leaves some wondering who the Class of 2008 will bring to campus.

The process of choosing the speaker, which began in June with the senior class presenting its “wish list” to administrators, can take months.

“Students choose people who are important to them,” said Karrie Heartlein, Knox’s director of public relations. “Often, they are folks who have strong name recognition and are in demand. Getting on their calendars is a tough job.”

Usually kept a secret, the students’ list is given to the president, who is then “really tasked with trying to bring in the top candidate,” she stated. For the last few years, the students’ first choice has been available to give the speech and receive an honorary degree.

And for at least the past three years, “the students have had the courage and the confidence to think big, and that has paid off,” added Heartlein. “We, as a college, have been lucky that the top names have been available to us.”

But the commencement speaker isn’t the only one who receives an honorary degree at the ceremony. On average, Knox gives away three honorary degrees yearly, and some of the names on that list are just as illustrious.

“There are some really incredible people who are also getting honorary degrees,” she said, including several poets laureate and Pulitzer Prize winners, military officers and Lincoln scholars.

In 2006, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, was presented with an honorary degree, sharing the stage with Colbert. Later that year, Colbert launched a famed campaign against Wikipedia, asking his viewers to submit their own versions of the definition of “elephant.” That particular entry was closed for submissions shortly thereafter.

That particular day, Heartlein said, was interesting because, “Needless to say, Stephen Colbert is in Wikipedia.”

The Knox College Board of Trustees will vote on the honorary degree recipients at its February meeting, after being presented with a list of recommendations by the honorary degrees committee. Once a proposed speaker commits to the engagement, the college will announce the name.

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