Behind Each Commencement Speaker: A Multi-Year Nomination & Selection Process

Colgate University announced in a Feb. 27 email to the student body that Wynton Marsalis will deliver the commencement address to the 2023 graduating class. Marsalis currently serves as managing and artistic director of jazz at the Lincoln Center, director of the Jazz Studies Program at The Juilliard School in New York and is president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.

“An icon of the jazz world with more than 110 recordings to his name, Wynton Marsalis will provide remarks at Colgate University’s 2023 commencement on Sunday, May 21,” the email read. 

Marsalis is the only artist to win a Grammy Award for both jazz and classical records. Known as the “Pied Piper of Jazz” and the “Doctor of Swing,” Marsalis also became the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1997. He has been awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Medal of Humanities as well as the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Marsalis is also an honorary member of Britain’s Royal Academy of Music and was appointed a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations in 2001.

Over the past four decades, Marsalis has been at the head of an international renaissance of interest in jazz through his performances, books, development of educational curricula and advocacy.

The Feb. 27 email also announced that Joe Castiglione ‘68, Ilya Kaminsky, Mary Ann Moran ‘77, Mark Siegel ‘73 and Marsalis himself will receive honorary Colgate degrees this year.

University President Brian W. Casey shed light on the decision to select Marsalis to deliver the commencement address, affirming a commitment to honoring the unique processes and experiences at Colgate that have allowed this graduating class to grow and develop.

“You want someone that has contributed to the creative arts, to scholarship, someone that has been civic […] You want people of the moment,” Casey said. “There was really a feeling that, with the Middle Campus opening up, wouldn’t it be great to have someone in the arts? Think about it, at [the class of 2023] Commencement, there will be steel going up on [the Benton Center for Creativity and Innovation].”

Senior Caroline Friedman commented on her excitement about the University’s selection.

“I am excited about Wynton Marsalis being chosen to speak at commencement because he balances the unique roles of trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director,” Friedman explained. “He appeals to a wide range of ages, promoting classical and jazz music to younger audiences but also making his way onto our parents’ playlists.”

Friedman added that it is important to have a unique and creative voice speak to the graduating class.

“We have had great speakers come to Colgate thus far, but I think Marsalis’ creative excellence sets him apart in a refreshing way,” Friedman said.

Casey added that, from year to year, Colgate makes an effort to select a wide variety of diverse speakers representing a range of student interests and experiences. Last year’s commencement address was given by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and The New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris.

“You want them all to feel like a set, you want it to be a balance,” Casey explained. “We do pay attention and say ‘we have not had a writer speak in a while, we have not heard from a natural scientist, we have not heard from people speaking about sustainability or social justice.’ You do think of it as an arc over many years.”

Senior Marco Greico expressed positive sentiments about the announcement that Marsalis will speak at his commencement ceremony.

“I think that Wynton Marsalis was a unique selection for commencement speaker. It was a pleasant surprise,” Greico said. “He is not only a decorated musician, but his core values are what I feel make him a strong commencement speaker.”

Casey explained how the speaker is chosen by the University, clarifying that the selection process for Marsalis began years in advance. A committee on honorary degrees, composed of four trustees, five elected faculty members and the senior class president sends out an email to students and faculty requesting speaker nominations. Each speaker is thoroughly considered by the committee, and if approved by the Board of Trustees, they are finally invited to deliver the address. 

“It cannot just be ‘what whims do we have this year?’ There is a rhythm to these selections. It is a very complicated dance because you send out invitations very far in advance,” Casey said. “These are very busy people […] it is a multiyear process.”

Greico expressed some frustration with this process, asserting that he believed current seniors should have had the ability to more directly nominate or provide feedback about their own commencement speaker. 

“Whether that is a list of prospective speakers and providing feedback or something similar to that, I strongly feel that there should be some mechanism of engagement for graduating seniors with the selection process of the commencement speaker,” Greico said.

Ultimately, Greico’s desire to be more involved in the selection process stems from his gratitude for the time he spent at Colgate and a deep appreciation for how the University has helped him mold his future. 

“Selecting someone who is going to give a powerful and inspirational speech is really important to me,” Greico said. “Commencement is the culmination of four years of memories, growth, experiences and so much more, and this event serves as the sendoff on a critical chapter of our lives.”