Howard Gordon Named 95th Commencement Speaker

On Friday, September 21, the Office of College Relations named Howard Gordon the commencement speaker for the ninety-fifth ceremony in May 2013. Gordon, an accomplished television producer and author, is best known for his work as an executive producer on Homeland and 24.

Most students have an opinion on the choice, but few understand how that choice was made. According to Bonnie Wells, the Secretary of the College, the commencement speaker selection process is a lengthy one. It starts as early as a year-and-a-half in advance of the graduating class’s junior year. First, a questionnaire is sent to the graduating class in their junior year, asking for suggestions for commencement speakers. Next, Wells convenes a committee to sort through the suggested names, generate some new ones and create a list of potential options.

The committee consists of the president of the junior class, Elisha Kahan ’13, who appoints four other members of the class, along with the college marshal, Professor of Psychology Ann Devlin, as well as another faculty member appointed by the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee, represented this year by Professor of Philosophy Andrew Pessin. Finally, an additional staff member contributes, usually from the Office of College Relations.

According to Deborah MacDonnell, the Director of College Relations and the representative committee member last year, the inclusion of someone from her office in the decision-making process is meant not so much to influence the outcome as to understand it. Because College Relations publicizes the speech after commencement, it is essential that the office completely understands the choice and the effect that it has on the image of the institution.

After the committee member discusses the candidates, President Higdon makes the final decision. President Higdon chose Howard Gordon after careful consideration of the students’ wishes, institutional goals and the expected audience. “[The choice is] not just for the students,” said Wells. “He has to consider the parents, faculty, staff and everyone else who will be there.”

Because Conn, like many schools around the country, doesn’t pay for the commencement speaker, the committee looks for people who are connected to the college. Gordon became a candidate through a friendship with Professor Pessin. He and Gordon met through a mutual friend while in university, and Pessin speaks highly of Gordon’s ability to “write good, intellectual content that is still entertaining.”

Pessin recognized that people sometimes object to speakers whose careers lie outside of academia. Today, he noted, the question of whether college is a worthwhile investment is common. In the past, the merit of higher education was beyond doubt, but it has become a matter of debate, and stories of individuals like Gordon restore confidence in a liberal arts education.

Gordon was educated in English, a core subject of the liberal arts, and he now leads a successful career in television. He therefore represents a refreshing role model, Professor Pessin said, for the many graduating seniors who worry about their ability to be competitive in the job market, make money and satisfy their financial commitments.

Last year’s speaker was Louis B. Susman, U.S Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London and a parent of a student here. The speaker for the class of 2011 was an alumna, Cynthia Enloe ’60, a research professor at Clark University. While both of the previous speakers have been very close to the college, such speakers are the exception rather than the rule. Generally, the guests invited aren’t students or parents, but instead public figures.

Gordon, a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in English, first rose to national prominence through his work on the award-winning show “The X-Files.” He then continued on to become a consulting producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” both of which also won critical acclaim, before moving on to his more recent roles as executive producer of 24, the short-lived show Awake, and most recently, Emmy-winner Homeland. He has also become a published author with his literary debut, Gideon’s War, released in January 2011. Interestingly, the plot of both Gideon’s War and its sequel, Hard Target, bear a genre similarity to 24 and Homeland. The relatively novel threat of terrorism has changed the culture of the United States in the past decade, and Gordon seems to have found a passion for telling stories of how the U.S government deals with the issue. Such government work is often shrouded in secrecy, leaving it up to content creators like Gordon to provide a narrative for the public.

Out of all of Gordon’s work, “Homeland,” arguably hits closest to home. Today’s world is filled with uncertainty and, for the first time in history, the greatest threat is one that is often invisible.  But how realistic are shows like Homeland or 24 or books like Gideon’s War? According to Bob Strang, CEO of a major security firm and an expert in terrorism, often called to speak on the subject on network television news, these shows and books are based in truth. He pointed out that given the constraints of a show’s time slot or a publisher’s set number of pages, things often have to be sped up, simplified, or slightly fictionalized for dramatic effect or to make the story engaging. But, within the context of a reasonable artistic license, they’re accurate in the types of situations they portray.

“The premise is correct,” he said. Whether Homeland represents an important part of the fight against terrorism or just simply entertainment will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate.

Gordon, therefore, represents an interesting choice for a commencement speaker. He has had an accomplished career and he continues to make exciting and entertaining television as he branches out into the world of writing books instead of screenplays. His recent work focuses on a sensitive and important facet of society. In a world where something like a single recently popularized YouTube video is enough to enrage the Muslim world, a show that deals with such issues demands attention. President Higdon said it best when he pointed out in his letter to the school that,

“His innovative work — and especially his talent for taking the most topical issues of the day and incorporating them into compelling storylines for broad audiences — is extraordinary, and reflects the kind of thoughtful, thorough and resourceful approach we seek to instill in our students through this liberal arts education.”