How Wake Forest selects Commencement speakers

Spring break has come and gone, exams are on the horizon, and Wake Forest seniors (and their families) are eager for the day they will hear their name called before crossing the stage on Hearn Plaza to shake President Susan Wente’s hand and be recognized forever after as a graduate of Wake Forest University.

During the pandemic, Wake Forest surveyed graduating seniors about what was most important to them about the commencement experience. Overwhelmingly, respondents commented on the opportunity to be together as a class one last time, the importance of celebrating with their families, and the desire to hold the ceremony on Hearn Plaza.

The prominence of the traditional keynote speaker was relatively low on the list of priorities, and yet it is an element of the commencement experience that receives significant attention from graduates, their guests, and the entire University community.

This year, Wake Forest increased the intentionality of the speaker selection process to emphasize alignment with the University’s motto.

“Wake Forest’s strategic framework process has helped the University articulate the animating spirit that supports our academic mission,” Wente said. “We are called to embody Pro Humanitate at home and in the world. It is therefore appropriate for our Commencement speakers’ lives and careers to demonstrate their commitment to a similar calling.”

Provost Michele Gillespie implemented a new governance structure during the fall semester to help organize Commencement weekend activities. A committee composed of staff from all of the University’s schools, various administrative units, and the faculty marshals for Commencement helps ensure a high degree of collaboration as events are planned to celebrate Wake Forest’s graduates. The planning group proposed creating a Commencement Speaker Committee of faculty, staff and students to nominate a prioritized slate of potential guest speakers to submit to Wente. The committee also developed a guiding philosophy to inform the Commencement speaker selection process.

“We recognize the importance and historical significance of the Commencement ceremony to the University,” explained Provost Michele Gillespie, who chairs the committee. “We endeavor to involve the entire campus community in the nomination process and identify potential commencement speakers with whom our graduates can really relate and who embody the mission and vision of the University.”

Each year the committee will solicit nominations for potential speakers who reflect the following guiding philosophies:

  • Appreciate the pursuit of excellence in the liberal arts and in graduate and professional education;
  • Advance the frontiers of knowledge through in-depth study, research, practice;
  • Demonstrate creativity, imagination and innovation in the service of humanity;
  • Encourage habits of mind that ask “why,” that evaluate evidence, that are open to new ideas, and open and frank dialogue;
  • Understand and appreciate inclusion and diversity;
  • Model ethical leadership;
  • Represent national/international stature in their profession.

Close ties to the Wake Forest community are not required for selection but certainly contribute to a speaker’s ability to understand and comment upon the Wake Forest experience. Nominations of Wake Forest alumni are encouraged. Regardless of whether they are an alum, a parent or family member, a former faculty member, or an inspirational public figure who embodies Pro Humanitate, the chosen speaker will join an esteemed list of past speakers who have encouraged graduates to serve as catalysts for good in society.

The University will announce the 2023 Commencement speaker in the next few weeks and begin soliciting nominations for the 2024 speaker in April.