Chris Herren chosen as Spring Commencement speaker: Student reaction to speaker selection mixed

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Former NBA player and The Herren Project founder Chris Herren has been named Framingham State University’s 2016 undergraduate commencement speaker.

The Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee notified students on March 8 via email that former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren had been chosen to speak at graduation.

Dan Costello, president of SGA and secretary of the Class of 2016, said the Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee chose Herren based on a survey posted last semester which was taken on Blackboard and available to all seniors.

Costello said the survey had included a comment section and they received positive feedback about Herren.

The other candidates included American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Liberian peace activist Leyman Gbowee, Boston Police Department Commissioner William Evans, founder of One Mission Ashley Haseotes and Chief Playmaker of Life is Good Steve Gross.

Two hundred and fifty seniors voted and Herren got the most votes, according to Costello.

In an email sent by Linda Vaden-Goad, head of the commencement speaker advisory committee and provost and vice president for academic affairs, she said Herren was a high school basketball player “who was named to the 1994 McDonald’s All-American team.”

Herren played in the NBA from 1999-2001 for the Denver Nuggets and the Boston Celtics before losing his career to a drug addiction, according to his website, Ahoopdream.com.

President F. Javier Cevallos said, “The story of his recovery from substance abuse and efforts to help those currently suffering from addiction is inspiring and particularly relevant, given the current opioid crisis in Massachusetts.”

Many students are disappointed with the commencement speaker chosen to speak at this year’s graduation ceremony.

Dan Russo, a senior, said, “I don’t think his speech is going to be good at all. Why would we want to hear about his past heroin addiction? This day is supposed to make us feel good about what we have accomplished. We shouldn’t have to hear about someone overcoming his addiction problems.”

Shin Freedman, head of scholarly resources and collections at FSU, was a commencement committee member who nominated the former Mayor of Fitchburg, Lisa Wong.

Freedman said she chose to nominate Wong because she was a young politician and she has heard her speak at a conference before. 

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be interesting to have students exposed to that?’ … Her progression, I thought, would be possibly inspiring for students,” she said.

When asked about the commencement speaker who was chosen, Freedman said that she knew nothing about Herren and had to Google his name to find out who he was.

“Personally, I don’t like to hear about, ‘I was good, then I fell down’ – a bootstrap idea.” She said Herren’s story is “run-of-the-mill.” Amy MacLure, a senior, said she was very surprised when she heard about Herren’s selection as commencement speaker.

“I had all odds on Neil deGrasse Tyson and was disappointed to find out it wasn’t him,” she said. “I do, however, look forward to the commencement speaker’s speech.”

Owen McSweeney, a senior, believes that Tyson should have been the commencement speaker.

“[Tyson] is witty, funny and intriguing. He makes science approachable, which in this culture, where the sciences are so lacking, is important for the future teachers, parents and so forth to be invested in,” said McSweeney.

Costello said, “I actually thought that Neil would have been a very good choice as well. He seems to be a very dynamic speaker. … I have not personally seen him speak, but I have seen his speeches online and he is very engaging. He could really connect with different disciplines, but we also decided with what students wanted first, by popular vote.”

Vaden-Goad said the Commencement Speaker Advisory Committee consisted of 25 students, faculty members and administrators tasked with nominating someone they believed would be the best commencement speaker.

Sarah Cowdell, vice president of the Class of 2016, said she and her fellow class officers were asked to sit on the committee to “represent the student voice.”

According to Cowdell, the committee “really liked” the idea of Herren being a commencement speaker because their goal was “to find someone that would be able to present a message that would have real, true meaning to the graduates.

“Chris has roots in Massachusetts and has a message that affects the lives of many,” she added.

Vaden-Goad said, “This year, we wanted to link up with the Arts & Ideas theme for the year, which was Stasis & Change, so that was also on our minds. We talked about qualities that we wanted. We wanted the person to be inspirational. The students also wanted the person to be entertaining and engaging and relevant to the students’ life experiences.

“At this moment in everyone’s life, when they are getting ready to leave here and go out into the world, the question is, ‘What would be the best message we could give them?’” said Vaden-Goad.

She added, “A lot of the people who did or didn’t know of him went to look at his YouTube and they really thought he was great. Everybody was very unified even though we had considered very fairly 25 people.”

After the speaker was chosen, the committee then needed to find out if the candidate would accept the unpaid position.

Costello said, “We as the senior class officers are working on giving a donation to his foundation.”

Costello said the senior class officers will be setting up tables in the McCarthy Center to try to solicit donations from students.

“The purpose of this is to get a donation to thank him for coming. The donation is going to a good cause. It’s not going to him. It’s not going in his pocket. It’s going to charity,” he said.

Costello said because substance abuse is such a prominent issue in Massachusetts, it would be a timely issue to discuss.

Dakota Howe, a senior, said, “He spoke at my high school, and I thought he was a really effective speaker. It was eye-opening to hear his story and everything that he overcame. He was a good inspiration for anyone who wants to positively turn their lives around for the better.”

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