Canada Chosen to Speak at Commencement

Diane Kahng

The Colgate University Commencement Committee has recently announced that Geoffrey Canada will be this year’s Commencement speaker for the class of 2009. Mr. Canada is the President and Chief Executive Officer for Harlem Children’s Zone. Named one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. World and Report in October 2005, Canada has also appeared in various media outlets including 60 Minutes, The Colbert Report, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and The New York Times.

Despite growing up in a poor and violent South Bronx neighborhood, Canada managed to excel academically, graduating from Bowdoin College and earning his Masters degree from the Harvard School of Education.

Canada has dedicated his career to helping underprivileged children. Canada’s organization, The Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc. is committed to helping children achieve academic excellence. It strategizes holistically to break the cycle of generational poverty, providing Central Harlem with free social and community programs for 7,400 children and over 4,100 adults.

The Board of Trustees Honorary Degree Committee selects the Commencement speaker and other honorary degree recipients from nominations sent in by students, faculty, staff members and alumni. This year’s committee included President Chopp, three members of the board of trustees, three members of the faculty and Senior Class President Christopher Nulty.

Initially, many confused students did not even recognize Geoffrey Canada’s name. Nulty admitted that he has heard some negative feedback.

“I think students believe we have to choose someone famous, but I am convinced fame has little to do with the quality of the speaker.,” Nulty said. “We want someone who offers wisdom to complete our journey at Colgate. As liberal arts graduates, we don’t have a specific skill set, but we can think critically. Mr. Canada is someone who has done exactly that. He made an incredible career out of it.”

Perhaps the critical thinking Nulty described is already taking place. Senior Graham Partner was originally upset over Mr. Canada’s selection, but his attitude towards the choice has since evolved.

“The more I think about it, it’s a particularly wise choice for this year,” Partner said. “People who came to Colgate had a plan in mind — ‘econ major, intern on Wall Street, get a banking job and be a millionaire by 30.’ Mr. Canada is a person with an ideal who then ran with it. It’s reflective of the kind of choices our graduating class has to make when the risks have never been lower.”

Nonetheless, student reactions have been mixed. Senior Alex Brewer also spoke about the selection process.

“What was the point of going through the nomination process if they’re going to choose someone most students haven’t even heard of?” Brewer said. “They led us to believe that we had an important role in bringing a speaker and clearly that wasn’t the case. I nominated a bunch of people, my friends did the same. I understand the recognizable factor in the name doesn’t necessarily mean a better speaker. But for almost everyone I’ve talked to, it’s a major letdown.”

Other students have expressed similar opinions. While students acknowledge the substance of the message is most important aspect of the speech, they have also asked, whether Colgate couldn’t get a well-known name who also delivers a great message. Senior Adam Zimmerman, however, was excited by the selection of Canada.

“Geoffrey Canada? He’ll shock this population,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just what we need. I think he’ll challenge the Colgate student population in a way a big-ticket name wouldn’t.” When asked what distinguished Mr. Canada, Zimmerman, who has followed Canada’s work and also read his book, Whatever It Takes, replied, “He’s a dynamic leader on the cutting edge of innovative poverty solutions.”

The committee also announced this year’s Baccalaureate speaker, Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of Philosophy and Religion Jerome Balmuth, who has been recognized as an influential faculty member since coming to Colgate in 1954. The 2009 honorary degree recipients are Melvyn Klein ’63, and Lonnie Thompson and his wife Ellen Mosley-Thompson.

Klein is an entrepreneur, Columbia Law School J.D., philanthropist and a guest writer for Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Klein was appointed to the Grace Commission by President Reagan and is a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

Ellen Mosley-Thompson is Geography Professor and Distinguished University Scholar at the Ohio State University. Lonnie Thompson is Distinguished University Professor in Ohio State’s School of Earth Sciences. Their research on climate change is among the best in the world and has earned numerous awards and recognition.