Acclaimed Native American writer Louise Erdrich ’76 has been selected to give the main address at Dartmouth’s 2009 Commencement exercises on June 14, the College announced on Thursday. Erdrich was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her 2008 novel, “The Plague of Doves.”
A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa tribe in North Dakota, Erdrich was in the first coeducational class at the College, and has since gone on to write 14 books that have won a variety of national and international awards. One of Erdrich’s daughters, Aza, is a member of the Class of 2011.
“I think she’s one of the most distinguished writers of our time,” College President James Wright said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “She’s been where students have been. She’s lived and shared some of the experiences that students have had.”
Erdrich’s qualifications for giving the address transcend her recent consideration for the Pulitzer, Wright said.
“I think it’s always timely to have somebody who knows how to tell a story that helps us to reflect more on the human condition, and I think she tells those stories quite well,” Wright said.
Three Dartmouth graduates that have been commencement speakers during Wright’s time as president, including former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson ’68, General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt ’78 and television personality Fred Rogers Tu ’64. Erdrich is the first female Dartmouth graduate to deliver the main address at the College’s Commencement.
“She’s a Dartmouth graduate, which is important to me,” Wright said. “I don’t think that we should be looking only for a Dartmouth graduate, but … they can identify with students here, and students can identify with them.”
The College does not pay Commencement speakers, outside of reimbursement for ancillary costs like travel expenses, according to Wright.
“I think we just should not [pay for a commencement speaker],” Wright said. “It’s really not a good thing to do.”
Some students expressed displeasure and confusion upon hearing the selection.
“Who is she?” Will Hanson ’09 joked, acknowledging that although he had heard of Erdrich, he does not believe she is a very high-profile speaker.
Several other members of the senior class interviewed by The Dartmouth said they wished the College offered students more input in the selection of Commencement speakers.
“I’m a little disappointed, because we didn’t have any real say in the matter,” Hari Iyer ’09 said.
The Commencement speaker is chosen from among the honorary degree recipients. The Council on Honorary Degrees solicits nominations from faculty, administrators and students in the graduating class. The Council consists of the senior Class Council president, the College president, three undergraduate professors and one professor from each of Dartmouth’s three graduate schools.
The Council then compiles a list of recommendations that is submitted to the Board of Trustees, according to College spokesman Roland Adams. These recommendations are confidential, as are the deliberations of the Council. The Board of Trustees is not required to consider only the recommendations provided by the Council.
The Board approves a final list of candidates for honorary degrees, and the College president then selects the honorary recipients from the list. The president consults with the Board to choose a commencement speaker from the list of honorary degree recipients.
“I am excited about the choice,” 2009 Class Council President Annie Rittgers ’09 said.
At Princeton University, where “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric will deliver the keynote address at commencement this year, graduation speakers are selected by a committee of senior class leaders based on recommendations from their classmates, according to a Princeton University press release.
At Yale, the senior class council chooses the speaker, according to The Yale Daily News.
“I always think that Dartmouth’s speakers compare favorably to other places,” Wright said. “This is about the experience that we share that morning in June, and that will be something that [Erdrich] will enrich significantly”
Brown University announced yesterday that Fareed Zakaria, a CNN anchor and editor of Newsweek International, will deliver its commencement address this year. Harvard University announced on April 2 that its commencement speaker will be U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate Steven Chu.
Erdrich is also one of seven individuals — including Boston Celtics star Bill Russell and retired U.S. Army Gen. John Abizaid — slated to receive an honorary degree at Commencement.
President James Wright said he confirmed with Erdrich in early winter that she would be commencement speaker, but waited to announce her name until the full slate of honorary degree recipients has been solidified.
The original headline of this article incorrectly stated that Erdrich is a member of the Class of 1979. In fact, Erdrich is a member of the Class of 1976.