President Michael S. Roth electrified an audience of trustees, faculty, students, and senior administrators less than 72 hours before Commencement with the news that Senator Barack Obama would substitute as speaker for the ailing Senator Edward Kennedy.
His announcement set off not only “A Spike in Screams Before Graduation,” as a New York Times headline noted in assessing the response of undergraduates, but also a mad scramble by staff to plan for an event that suddenly had been lifted into a different sphere of complexity. Public Safety immediately began coordinating with the Secret Service as well as local and state police. Wesleyan’s media relations office was inundated with 157 requests for press credentials, an order of magnitude greater than normal.
“As news spread across the campus Thursday via instant messaging, blog posts, texting, cellphone, and Facebook,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “people began selling their commencement tickets on Craigslist for hundreds of dollars.”
From the seats arrayed on Andrus Field, the day seemed to unfold with the precision of the Taiko Drumming Ensemble that rhythmically pounded drums under the watchful eyes of police snipers crouched on roofs as the red-robed students made their way to the front. A crowd of at least 15,000 people heard remarks by President Roth and Senator Obama, among them Ted Kennedy Jr. ’83 and Senator Kennedy’s stepdaughter, Caroline Raclin ’08, as well as other members of the Kennedy family. Another 5,500 worldwide watched the Wesleyan webcast from as far away as Pakistan and Sri Lanka. [Roth’s and Obama’s remarks, as well as the rest of the ceremony, may be viewed online at www.wesleyan.edu/newsrel/announcements/rc_2008/]
As President Roth noted in his blog, it was surely “A Great Day for Wesleyan.” The aftermath was equally impressive, with a torrent of publicity unmatched by any Commencement in recent Wesleyan history. Every major news network reported the event, and CNN carried a substantial portion of Senator Obama’s remarks. Wesleyan received well over 1,200 media hits, which spun off into numerous blog commentaries. As the Times said, “Wesleyan’s getting Mr. Obama as a last-minute graduation speaker, even if under trying circumstances, was a little like Notre Dame getting the pope.”
Looking for an unusual angle on the story, writers for Bloomberg.com interviewed NFL head coaches Bill Belichick ’75 and Eric Mangini ’94 for comments about Wesleyan. Bloomberg also tapped famed marathoner Bill Rodgers ’70, perhaps coincidentally selecting two individuals (Belichick and Rodgers) inducted into Wesleyan’s new Athletics Hall of Fame over Reunion and Commencement weekend.
Among the commentators on Senator Obama’s text was James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly. On his TheAtlantic.com blog, he cited Senator Obama’s call to service: “That is all I ask of you on this joyous day of new beginnings: that is what Senator Kennedy asks of you as well, and that is how we will keep so much needed work going, and the cause of justice everlasting, and the dream alive for generations to come.” A reader had pointed out that the language was a very subtle acknowledgement of words Kennedy himself had used 28 years ago at the 1980 Democratic convention in New York.
“Even if the intended audience for this close was strictly the Kennedy family,” Fallows wrote, “it is an impressive bit of craftsmanship.”