Editorial: McCourt a great choice at the wrong time

Once again, the Student Development Office has managed to stir an overwhelmingly positive response in announcing the keynote speaker for Parents Weekend will be noted author Frank McCourt.

McCourt’s 1996 memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” won a Pulitzer prize and was made into a movie. The book, along with its follow-up, “‘Tis,” painted a chillingly real portrait of growing up in economically harsh times in Ireland during the 1930s. The Irish Studies program as well as members of the Irish Cultural Society have obvious ties to McCourt’s address, though his experiences will probably touch anyone who attends, regardless of ethnic background.

The fact that this office so consistently brings in powerful figures for parents and students to take advantage of – McCourt was preceded by Polish revolutionary Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement many credit with the overturn of Communism in Eastern Europe – is a tremendous thing which students should be grateful to experience.

However, while Parents Weekend never fails to generate throngs of moms and dads anxious to catch up with students, not all of them make an effort to attend the keynote address. The attendance figures have swollen of late, though, despite the difficulties presented by Walesa’s need for a translator. More than 1,500 students and parents turned out last year even though he was in the Pavilion, which was at the time notorious for its poor acoustics and high reverberation times, making comprehension difficult. The acoustics in the facility have since been improved, leading Student Development to reserve the building in anticipation of the demand McCourt will bring.

Even in an improved Pavilion, McCourt will be lucky to speak to more than 2,500 people, however. Parents and students often set their own schedules for the weekend, choosing to spend nights in Philadelphia or dine out and thereby miss the event. Yet what students and parents can count on is the likelihood that the speaker they will be forced to listen to later in the year – the one who will address the graduating class at commencement – will be sub-par when compared to McCourt.

The last few years have been dry times for the University in terms of attracting nationally-recognized speakers. Last May, a widow whose husband died in the World Trade Center gave the address. And even though Suzanne Berger ’85 became a beacon for those who lost friends and family on Sept. 11, the fact that the University was unable to attract someone of higher caliber to give the address reflects poorly on the high national standing it strives to achieve. Dr. John L. Hennessy ’73 was the University’s pick in 2001, a virtual unknown whose only connection to the national stage is his role as president of Stanford University.

While we understand the demand for a qualified speaker increases around commencement time and is probably not as great during Parents Weekend, it is unacceptable for the University to continue to settle for mediocrity when it comes to commencement speakers, especially after teasing its population with such extraordinary guests as Walesa and McCourt. Villanova simply must find a way to bring such luminaries to the campus in May, where they will be guaranteed a sizeable audience, not in September for a couple of thousand people.