GWU Issues Management

A blog established for the George Washington University School of Political Management's Issues Management course.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

A Prophet without Honour

"A prophet is not without honour, save in His own country, and in His own house." (Matthew 13:54-58)

So, is President Trachtenberg a prophet without honor? GWU has an issue around the decision to make President Trachtenberg the commencement speaker. How would you manage the issue? Who are the audiences that matter? What would your message be, if you were the schools' issues manager?

How do you like President Trachtenberg's message:

"I feel like a virtuous Don Imus," Trachtenberg said yesterday, laughing at the student reaction. "This is great stuff."

Please comment.

16 Comments:

Blogger phillip cory said...

Using scripture as a backdrop, Jesus spoke to his disciples before he chose to go to his death. He did not bring Pilate in or anyone else to do it. LOL, that aside, in my undergraduate commencement, our outgoing President gave the address as well. I would say that Trachtenberg was correct when he said that the students maybe come to expect someone "famous" and want that to look forward to instead of a University president on his way out. They think to themselves, this person had Bill Cosby and last year they had former President Bush so why do I have to get Trachtenberg. I believe it to be spoiled kids of privilege. Perhaps Trachtenberg has earned this speech for himself. He has done a lot for the university so why not let him give the commencement address.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Danny said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Danny said...

I agree with Phillip that the students at that school are acting like "spoiled kids of privilege." The point of a speech like that is to give the students a motivating speech about doing something with their lives and going on to achieve great things. This Trachtenberg feller has obviously accomplished a lot for their school. Having someone famous is less important than having someone who can speak to the students about shared experiences.
The university needs to make the students their audience and make the message more about the content of the speech than the actual speaker. (All the stuff I mentioned above.) There will always be a few students who will whine and complain and those who will protest, throw eggs, and boo because they have no decency, class, or respect for others. These are the same people out there every weekend (weather permitting) on the Mall protesting against something or other. The school needs to appeal to the majority of students who just want to have a memorable and enjoyable graduation. The university needs to reassure these students and get them on board with the speaker.

6:08 PM  
Blogger rach a said...

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
Bible, New Testament, I Thessalonians

I agree with Danny, I do believe that perhaps Commencement has fallen as many other things, from what was intended to be motivational spokesmanship into entertainment in the proliferation of commercialist, materialist culture.

Woe is the hand that sheds this blood...

for this scrunity will continue with every following speaker chosen for years to come unless someone of national stature speaks on behalf of Trachtenberg and reminds students of the importance of the words shared during Commencement ceremonies.

It's not like this is some random joe, this President brought the School to a highly modern and practical state of being, continuing the great name of this University. Furthermore, he was geniunely and routinely involved in sharing his experiences and socializing with his students, as well as published books about it.

I shake my head at the conceit.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

When I graduated from undergrad, we were explicitly told that "graduation is not for you, it's for your parents." Our keynote speaker that year was the governor (who just happened to be running for re-election that year) who was not well liked by the student population. But at the end of the day graduation was just that, graduation, and it would not have mattered if we had had George H.W. Bush or Bill Cosby (as my sisters who both graduated from the same school as I had years earlier), I still graduated.

From an issues management point, I think that yes the students are an audience, but as my graduating class was told "graduation is for your parents" so I think that the parents should be considered an audience in this too. They may not be as passionate (or really care in the least) who speaks at their child's graduation, but they are still an audience. The people who threaten to boycott or throw food or other materials should not be considered an audience. These are people who's opinion will never change.

The school would be wise to say "I understand you are disappointed that celebrity x was not the speaker but graduation is so much more than who the speaker is." The school is what it is today due to Trachtenberg and if anyone could have sound words of advice as the students embark on the next journey of their life, who better.

This is never an easy thing because after 4 (or more years) of studying graduation is seen as such a high point, and people see it as their day and don't think that "their day" should be used to further another person's agenda, or to feed their ego. You will never please everyone with a speaker others will always want someone else.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Brooke said...

It’s funny when you reflect back on times past – I can honestly shake my head at the things I thought were once important.

What we have here at GWU surrounding President Trachtenberg is best summed up by what my dad would always say to me and my siblings, “You kids want for nothing, and need for everything.”

Honestly, the whole situation is not a big deal. There are plenty of colleges and universities around the nation that do not have a “famous” commencement speaker. While graduates are allowed to be disappointed at the selection – they’re adults now – welcome to the real world. The commencement speech will be such a small fraction of their day.

In 2004, I graduated with my B.A. and the commencement speaker was Retired General Tommy Franks. Embarrassing as it may seem – I didn’t even know he was going to be the speaker until I got to graduation and began to read through the program. While I did enjoy his speech, at the end of the day – graduation was about the accomplishment; meeting this huge personal goal – FINALLY GETTING OUT! The last thing that was on my mind was who would be speaking.

GWU has a decision to make – a precedent to set if I may. From this point on – they can either decide that the commencement speech should be made by the President (as many other prestigious colleges and universities do and the students know no different) or they can succumb to the complaints and whining of graduating students and continue with famous faces.

The audience may be the students and the parents attending, but isn’t the message about the achievement? Regardless of what Bill Cosby, G.H. Bush or President Trachtenberg tells me in a speech does not negate the fact that it is my goal and it’s my diploma.

I think sometimes we get too caught up in our day-to-day lives and lose touch of what is really important. I can’t imagine that the students at VT could careless about who delivers there commencement speech this year. The best speeches delivered are those of conviction – something President Trachtenberg clearly holds for GWU. I find it is the case that for this year, for the class of 2008 – that there is no other candidate that would be able to offer the same genuine substantive speech as Trachtenberg. And if this still upsets students – the beauty of graduation is that it isn’t mandatory – bygones.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Brian C. said...

First off, I think that it is completely disrespectful that a handful of students are portraying the university in such negative light. Yes I agree, Trachtenberg isn’t a former President of the United States, actor, or even a diplomat, but honestly who cares? He has done a tremendous job for GW, and who ever replaces him will have tough shoes to fill. I find it completely appropriate to have one of his final duties giving the commencement speech.
The best solution as far as an issue management campaign goes, I think for the first time, is to ignore the people who are unhappy. What good does it do to give them the pleasure of egging them on? The majority of people are fine with him speaking, and he will be gone by next school year anyways. Furthermore how many people even pay attention to their commencement speech?? I don’t even remember who gave mine for undergrad!

11:09 AM  
Blogger Brandt said...

I agree the student population is acting very entitled. I think they are however his target audience since they are the ones who could likely make this a very poor situation for Trachtenberg very quickly. I think his message should be that he wants to say goodbye to the school and people he worked so hard for over the years. That graduation is a way for him to formally thank all the people including the students who made him so successful as a president. I liked the line, “I could have gotten you a more famous speaker -- but nobody who loved you more.” One of the most important things seems for him to be able to turn this around and make it not so it is about him, but about all the people who contributed to their education and the success of the University. I think he should also touch on the fact that he is graduating and wants to share that experience with the students of the University, so they can move on together.

11:10 AM  
Blogger alison m said...

While I agree that this isn't the most important thing that the student should be concerned with, I do find some of their complaints valid.

Trachtenberg said about speaker Bill Cosby, "He was terrific and very funny. But he never did anything for GW before -- or subsequently." If that's the standard, then why get George and Barbara, Desmond Tutu, Madeleine Albright, or any of the past more prestigious speakers at all?

The fact is, schools aim for high profile commencement speakers to entice their alumni to donate more and build their endowments. Second to that, they look for high profile speakers to attract incoming students (also another source of income).

Frankly, I've never bought the whole argument that graduation is for your parents. I don't recall my mother pulling all-nighters to finish my thesis. She'd tell you the same thing. The fact is this graduation is about these kids. They not only worked hard, but they (or someone) paid a lot of money for them to go to GW.

My only point is that following George and Barbara as commencement speakers, I can see how these students would be disgruntled. Are they entitled to be disrespectful at graduation? No, and I hope they don't embarrass themselves doing so.

They are entitled to be upset and protest it. I think Trachtenberg is a very deserving and qualified commencement speaker, but from an issues management stand point, if no one at the school expected there to be protests and upset students, then they are naive.

As for the weak jusitifications that they are trying to provide now, they shouldn't even try because it makes it worse.

Trachtenberg is an acceptable choice, but they knew (or should have known) it would cause a stir, so just let the students complain. They'll come to grips with reality soon enough.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Justin P said...

It seems to me that several of the earlier comments have addressed the degree to which GWU students deserve a guarantee of some outside celebrity at their commencement.

I'd agree that viewing an outgoing university president as unsatisfactory does smack of "spoiled brat syndrome," but what does one do to manage this issue?

In my view, advertising Trachtenberg's credentials might soften criticism. By focusing on a wide array of his life experiences and accomplishments in an article in the student paper, some students may find that he isn't as uninteresting as they had imagined.

The key is to portray him has a leader worth learning from. In particular, I would relate his previous accomplishments coming up in the world with the situation of new college graduates. I would focus on his life as an example for students to emulate, not on his tenure at the university, which students will likely find boring.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Honestly, I think the students who are complaining are making too big a deal out of something that many of them will remember little about a year from now. While both the students and their parents are audiences, I really don't think that the graduation speaker is something either group should have any say in. I had not heard of the commencement speaker at my own college graduation and it didn't make graduating any less meaningful. The students who are upset should focus more on their experiences in school and the futures they have in front of them, and they should focus less on the fact that the speaker at their graduation is not as famous as they would have liked.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

I understand the protest of the students - my graduation speaker last year was the dean OF A DIFFERENT SCHOOL. And yes, we protested. However, I think the audience that is of concern here is not the students (they will be thankful for a touching speach on the day of graduation, and they will decide to contribute money as alums), but rather it is potential students that the school is trying to woo away from the Ivy League and potential donors (especially alum) who want to contribute to a top-tier school. I believe a great deal depends on what he actually says in the speach because, as far as I'm concerned, he won the argument when he said the first line was: "I could have gotten you a more famous speaker -- but nobody who loved you more." Damn, now the students just look spoiled and ungrateful! If Trachtenberg can continue to be a class-act (and I'm pretty certain he can), the school will look like a top university who also cares about its students.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Elan said...

In my response to the question posed by Professor Black, I’m going to do my best to approach this situation not as a student or with regard to the content, but simply as an “issue” and the university’s management of the issue.

In previous weeks, we were asked to identify the point at which an issue originated; in this case, I think it’s clear that this was an “issue” from the outset, from the very beginning. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a huge fan of having the president speak as the keynote speaker, as he already speaks at the ceremony simply as the president, but I also don’t think that selecting SJT to be the speaker was the worst thing in the world. His selection became an issue at the moment it was announced to the public.

For an administration that has done an exceptional job of redefining and managing its own image throughout the last two decades, for a university that has gone above and beyond in making a point of consciously framing itself in a certain way, and for a president who is nothing if not intelligent, thoughtful, and careful, the way in which the selection of this year’s keynote was announced was simply tactless.

Like I said, the selection of SJT as the speaker was, perhaps, not ideal, but it certainly didn’t have to result in outright protest by students. What caused that outrage was the way in which the selection was announced and the news broken; I think it could have easily been avoided had the university been forthright in explaining the selection in the context of:
(1) the strong work on the part of SJT over almost two decades as president;
(2) the tradition of having university presidents give the commencement keynote at many prestigious universities; and,
(3) the fact that, while he would be delivering the keynote, he would be joined by five honorary degree recipients, each of whom would speak also. Instead, the announcement was simply that SJT was to be the keynote speaker, and that was the end of the story. This was followed by remarkably ill-advised comments like “I feel like a virtuous Don Imus,” and, my personal favorite, SJT’s comment to the effect of “Sometimes, when you’re used to a high-calorie diet, you have to eat a salad.”

I simply don’t understand how someone didn’t tell the president to expect retorts of “Well, on my graduation day, I want a steak.”

I disagree with some of the previous comments that parents ought to be considered the audience in this situation. It is true that parents, in many senses, are the audience for the actual graduation ceremony and speaker; however, the audience for the announcement of the graduation keynote speaker is, indeed, the student population (specifically, of course, graduating students). It doesn’t seem at all as if the university took its audience into account when it made the announcement of the selection. As those above have noted, here at GW we do indeed have a rather privileged student body – regardless of whether the expectations that this leads to are justifiable or not, though, in making such an announcement, there’s no avoiding the fact of this privilege and these expectations. The university should have known and understood its audience – its students – well enough to expect this kind of backlash to this announcement as it was framed.

Above, I’ve made reference to this different approach I would recommend as “the issue manager,” if there were an opportunity to do it all over again. I believe that the selection of SJT as the keynote speaker could have been presented appropriately, and in such a way that it could be well-received – so long as those making the announcement had framed it in the context of the three items I listed previously, and kept in mind the particular audience at hand.

Given that it is not possible to “do it all over again,” I think the university has taken the right approach to the situation, as of only this morning or the day before: It has reversed its previous announcement, and instead followed in the tradition of many of its previous commencement ceremonies, denoting no single keynote speaker and emphasizing that all five of the honorary degree recipients will give extended remarks. This seems to have gone over fairly well with students – but also provides a wonderful illustration of how important framing is to such a decision and announcement:

Really, little has changed about the commencement ceremony but titles. SJT will still speak, just as he was to do before, delivering the president’s charge to the graduates. The five recipients will speak, just as they were to do before, upon receipt of their honorary degrees. It’s doubtful that the content of any of these speeches will change drastically: SJT will still talk about his time at the university and his hopes for the students; and the degree recipients will still talk about how honored they are, how important education is, and their advice to the graduates. All that will have changed is the labels applied to the speakers – and the framing of the commencement announcement. And if the university had been more mindful of this from the very beginning, we could have avoided upwards of a week of confusion, resentfulness, and turmoil within the student body.

2:32 PM  
Blogger alison m said...

Another thought...

I just want to be Devil's Advocate for a second and put this out there as pure conjecture (though likely not far from fact)....

Eeveryone right - a year from now, no one will care about this. However, there are many of us in this class who are set to graduate from GSPM this spring or summer (and thus eligible for May Commencement). I imagine that only a small fraction of that number, if any, are participating in the GW May Commencement ceremonies - for whatever reasons (no need for another cap and gown, less affinity towards the school, no desire to sit in the sun on plastic chairs and bake in the sun for hours)

However, I would wager that if GW had chosen a higher profile, bigger celebrity, the number of GSPM students and other graduate students in attendance at graduation would increase substantially.

So while we're all saying the students are over reacting, it's something to think about. Maybe those are fightin' words, but I bet I'm not far off base.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Melinda R said...

In my undergrad commencement, our college had a "famous" screenwriter that no one had ever actually heard of. He was a fantastic speaker, and those of us in the audience loved it. My friends in a different college had a much more famous speaker, and his speech was long, boring, and unmemorable. Rather than arguing with the students, GW should have crafted a much more positive message endorsing their choice. The students probably would have still reacted negatively (since the undergrads do tend to be a bit spoiled), they may have been a litte bit more easily convinced that Trachtenberg is in their best interest.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

This is a great example of the shining difference between public and private university educational atmospheres. I attended UCLA and...if you want to cry like a baby...cookiemonster spoke...the one from the tv show! he was there in all his blue glory to announce the new nutrition-centered version of cookie monster...an image change that includes his consuming vegetables at times in place of the treat-turned-obsession. But back to the difference between public and private schools. UCLA had a ton of protests. We protest everything from voting rights to immigration. Private university kids have a bad record for protesting meaningless things. this is such a case. If you go to GWU and, out of some insecurity, tend to thing that being 50th overall in the nation means you need a big name on the program...i think that's simple...and simple is one of the greater insults for any university's burgeoning offspring ready to go out in the world. suck it up kids and be proud of your degree and school...you wont get a job based on the speech you heard.

The university should handle the situation with this in mind.

4:23 PM  

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