The college named Billy Collins, the former official poet of the United States under the George W. Bush administration, to deliver the undergraduate class of 2018 commencement address this May.
Collins, whose work has been featured in publications like the New Yorker, Paris Review, and American Scholar, served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. Collins also appears on National Public Radio.
The celebrated poet will receive an honorary degree alongside Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice and Emerson alumna Elspeth “Ellie” Cypher ‘80, award-winning film director Deeyah Khan, and bestselling novelist Tom Perrotta.
Senior Anahita Padmanabhan, Protesting Oppression With Educational Reform journalism senator, said the college’s choice for the undergraduate commencement speaker is disappointing.
“Being a person of color at Emerson and in this class, and being involved in the activism that comes from the students of color, it’s just kind of disappointing that it’s another white guy,” she said. “It kind of sucks that for all the hard work that the students of color in our class put in, it doesn’t get reflected when we graduate.”
During last year’s commencement speech, speaker and mystery novelist Dennis Lehane—a 53-year-old white man—used the N-word.
Director of Media Relations President Michelle Gaseau wrote in an email to the Beacon that the people Emerson selects to speak at commencement speeches often contribute to the welfare of society. Gateau received the information from Assistant Vice President for the Office of the President Anne Shaughnessy.
“[The recipients] made a substantial contribution to human knowledge or to an academic discipline or profession … and have provided extraordinary leadership or support for the college,” Gaseau wrote.
Khan, an Emmy and Peabody award-winning film director, will address the graduate class of 2018. The Norwegian-born director with Pashtun and Punjabi descent founded Fuuse, a media company that tells stories of those often silenced or ignored by the media, which includes women, minorities and third-culture children, according to the company’s official website.
“You would think that’s more along the lines of what Emerson would want to represent for both classes,” Padmanabhan said. “I’m happy for them but it sucks to know that we got halfway there.”
Senior Arden Jurskis, who is flying to Boston from Emerson Los Angeles for commencement in May, said his mom used to read him poems by Collins. But he said the college should have chosen someone a little more quirky and representative of Emerson to deliver the undergraduate commencement address.
“I think [Collins is] a better commencement speaker than they’ve had in a while, but it’s just utterly not thrilling,” he said. “We’re all young and we’re all like hungry for activism … and they just picked some 77-year-old white guy who writes poems for grandparents.”
The college will hold the undergraduate and graduate ceremony Sunday, May 13 in the Agganis Arena at Boston University. Both ceremonies will be live streamed at emerson.edu/live.
Correction, April 12: A previous version of this article stated Assistant Vice President for the Office of the President Anne Shaughnessy emailed the Beacon about the commencement speaker, but Michelle Gaseau who is the Director of Media Relations emailed the Beacon after talking to Shaughnessy.