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Cosby to speak at '02 graduation
by Elizabeth Decker
Thresher staff

courtesy bill cosby
Bill Cosby will give the 2002 commencement address.

One of television's most famous fathers, Bill Cosby, will speak at Rice's 89th commencement ceremony on May 11, 2002.

President Malcolm Gillis said Cosby was chosen because of his commitment to higher education, citing in particular a $20 million donation Cosby made to Spelman College in Atlanta in 1989.

Cosby has been among the top 10 student-nominated commencement speaker candidates for the past several years, former Student Association President Lindsay Botsford said.

Cosby previously expressed an interest in appearing at Rice for the 2001 commencement, but was reluctant to speak without receiving an honorary degree. Rice does not grant honorary degrees.

Gillis said the university will honor him in another way.

"We just don't [give honorary degrees], and he's accepted that," Gillis said. "We are going to honor him for his service to higher education, but it will be before commencement, not during commencement."

Cosby will return his speaker's fee to the university to create an award in his name "for outstanding service to higher education," Gillis said.

A committee of faculty, students and Board of Trustees members will present the award to "people like Mr. Cosby, people like faculty leaders, here or elsewhere. It can be people in government who have done great service to higher education," Gillis said.

Gillis explained that one reason for Cosby's interest in speaking at Rice was that both Rice and where he played football, Temple University, share the same mascot.

"We're giving him a Rice Owls sweatshirt," Gillis said.

Cosby dropped out of high school instead of repeating the 10th grade and joined the Navy. He attended Temple on a football scholarship, and he later earned a bachelor's degree and doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1972 and 1977, respectively.

In 1965, Cosby became the first black person to star in a weekly TV series with his role in "I Spy," and has been called the "Jackie Robinson of television." Cosby has starred in a number of TV shows, and is best known for his leading role in "The Cosby Show" in the '80s.

Cosby has donated money to many other organizations benefiting the black population, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Negro College Fund, the National Sickle-Cell Foundation and the National Council of Negro Women.

He has appeared as the graduation speaker at both small colleges and large universities. He holds honorary degrees from Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Spelman College and the University of Southern California, among others.

Gillis said he chose to announce Cosby's engagement early this year instead of in late August or September because of high student interest in having Cosby speak.

"Since they've had him on the list for so many years, I figured, 'All right, this is a person who has been very much in demand, why not just let them know now?'" Gillis said.

In the normal selection process for the commencement speaker, a committee of students and faculty recommends a list of candidates. Gillis was in the process of creating this year's committee when he began negotiating Cosby's appearance.

Commencement Speakers Since 1991
The following is a list of the commencement speakers at Rice since 1991, when the first person outside of the Rice staff spoke.

1991: James A. Baker III, Secretary of State under President George Bush, Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under President Reagan, honorary director of Rice's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
1992: Richard von Weizsächer, first president of the unified Germany
1993: Jimmy Carter, president of the United States from 1977-1981
1994: Elizabeth Dole, President of the American Red Cross from 1991 to 1999, Secretary of Labor under President George Bush and Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan
1995: Bill Bradley, Democratic senator from New Jersey and member of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame
1996: Anita K. Jones, Director of Defense Research and Engineering for the Department of Defense. (Jones was selected after Newsweek columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Meg Greenfield cancelled her appearance due to health reasons)
1997: Alan Derschowitz, Harvard Law School professor and one of O.J. Simpson's lawyers during his murder trial
1998: Kurt Vonnegut, author, works include Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions
1999: Helmut Schmidt, German chancellor from 1974-1982
2000: George Bush, president of the United States from 1989-1993
2001: Morris Dees, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center

He asked former Student Association President Lindsay Botsford, who organized the committee, if the committee could delay their first meeting until he finalized negotiations with Cosby and Botsford agreed.

Botsford explained that because of the past interest in having Cosby appear as the speaker, Gillis felt comfortable securing Cosby without consulting the committee.

"They were basically working under the assumption that since he'd been in the top 10, popular every year, that it wouldn't be an issue," Botsford, a Wiess College junior, said.

Gillis said the selection procedure was unusual this year, but it ensured that Cosby would be able to be the commencement speaker.

Gillis said students will remain a part of the selection process in the future.

The president of the university has been officially charged with selecting a commencement speaker since the university began having a speaker in 1991. (See box of past commencement speakers.)

Commencement speakers are not always people outside of the Rice community.

Last year's commencement speaker, former President George Bush, was an adjunct professor at Rice in the late '70s.

When Gillis became university president in 1993, he created a committee of students and faculty to choose the speaker for the first time.

The committee, composed of members of the graduating class, surveys graduating students and reports the top nominees for commencement speaker to the president. The president then contacts those people and asks them to speak at commencement.

However, Rice has had difficulties getting the nominee to appear.

"The problem is that the people that are usually on the list either want an honorary degree or they want a large amount of money, both of which Rice doesn't give," Botsford said.

For this year's commencement, for example, none of the nominees expressed interest in speaking, Botsford said. The president approached civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, who agreed to appear. "So basically it comes down every year to seeing who Gillis can call and get, with the assistance of the rankings from students," Botsford said.

Despite the difficulties created by the Board of Trustees policy not to award honorary degrees, Gillis said the policy is unlikely to change, both because of the original logic behind the decision and because it is now a Rice tradition.

"Once you get a tradition, it's pretty hard to change a tradition," Gillis said. "But the original idea was that there's only way to get a Rice degree and that's to earn it."

Awarding honorary degrees damages the commencement ceremony, he said.

"Some institutions abuse these things greatly. They'll have a lineup of eight or 10 or 15 people to get honorary degrees," Gillis said. "Can you imagine what that does to the poor students sitting there at commencement while everybody makes a little speech when they are presented?"

Botsford agreed with the policy. "We say only if you've actually done the work should you get a degree from Rice."

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