Villanova Commencement: No Feature Speaker, Set to Focus on Students


Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A, Ph. D served as the commencement speaker for the class of 2021.

Vivi Melkonian, Co-Editor-in-Chief

While other universities have names like Joe Biden, Taylor Swift and Anthony Fauci delivering their graduation addresses, Villanova has opted to make graduation this year all about the students. This year’s ceremony for the Class of 2022 will not feature a keynote commencement speaker. The commencement ceremony will take place on Friday, May 13 for the undergraduates, and Saturday, May 14 for graduate students. 

“The focus is on them,” Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD said about the graduating students. 

Father Peter explained the absence of an outside keynote speaker for the Class of 2022. 

“We do not have a commencement speaker, someone from the outside, simply because it really takes so long to get those people,” Father Peter said. “We didn’t really know what it was going to be like [with COVID], or how many restrictions there would be.” 

Father Peter explained that the University wanted the focus to remain on the graduates, and the celebration will be about them. 

“Sometimes people look at it as who the person was and how famous the person was, and if the person was really famous they were excited,” Father Peter said. “It was kind of bragging rights. The last two years though, it really hasn’t seemed to make a difference because I think the focus is on them. The focus in the last two years has really been on the graduates.”

When asked if the students would receive this news well, Father Peter said he thinks they will be okay with it. 

“I think they will understand,” he said. “I hope they are all grateful that they’re here, and they got through this and got to stay on campus. Villanova did a lot to get them through this experience, and we got through this, we are not over it yet, but we got through the most difficult time of COVID, and, I say it all the time, predominantly because our students wanted to be here. They followed protocols and did everything they needed to do and they made it work. Graduation should be about celebrating them.”

When planning for commencement began back in the fall, the state of COVID on campus and in the region was uncertain. Father Peter acknowledged that was an issue. 

“Planning for commencement begins back in the fall, the dates are selected, and all of those things are done, but we were not sure where COVID would be,” Father Peter said.  “We knew it was better than last year, but so we were basically going to use the same format we were going to use but with a few additions.”

He explained this graduation plan is in response to feedback from last year’s model.  

“Their names will be called, and they will walk across the stage,” Father Peter said. “There’s no college events. We did that last year because of COVID, but the people really liked it. All they cared about was their name was called. Their name was called, and they got to walk across the stage, they got their picture taken. It takes a little longer but it works.”

He elaborated on the tedious planning process for commencement and difficulty of finding a speaker. 

“You contact someone in September, and sometimes you don’t find out,” Father Peter said. “The year we had Dr Jill Biden, she’s a graduate of Villanova, the Vice President’s wife at the time, not yet the First Lady, we could not get an answer from the White House until six weeks prior to the [graduation] date. So for that entire year we were waiting until 6 weeks before, and if she said no we’d have to scramble.”

Father Peter noted some momentous speakers of the past that accompany Dr. Biden included Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, “Life Is Good” Co-Founder and CEO Bert Jacobs, and Michael Bloomberg. Additionally, he explained the financial woes of obtaining a keynote speaker. 

“The thing is, we don’t pay them, and some of them are asking a pretty heavy fee to speak for a few minutes,” Father Peter said. “[Some will ask] for $100,000, and we’re not paying that. We give them an honorary degree and think of that as payment. We pay for transportation and stuff.”

Father Peter explained that he would rather put that money into something else. 

“I don’t even remember who spoke at my graduation,” he said.

This spring students at Boston College will be addressed by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Prime Minister of Greece, and the University of Pennsylvania is featuring documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. 

President Joe Biden will headline graduation at his alma mater University of Delaware, and Taylor Swift will address undergraduates at New York University. Disease specialist and Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States Dr. Anthony Fauci will make rounds this spring, as the keynote speaker at Printceton University, Roger Williams University and University of Maryland Baltimore-County. 

Father Peter explained that in the wake of the pandemic, Villanova is not the only school to discontinue the tradition of a keynote speaker. 

“I think sometimes people think ‘oh we should have a graduation speaker,’ but over the course of this year, or the last couple of years I think a number of schools have put it on the back burner because there were too many other things to worry about.” Father Peter said. “As I said it’s really hard to get somebody.”

Father Peter explained that this year’s commencement is going to be about celebrating the students, not an outside keynote speaker. Senior Billy Vinci was not pleased with the news.

“Having a commencement speaker doesn’t take it away from the students, but having yourself two years in a row makes it about him,” Vinci said. “Especially when he usually speaks anyway.”

Senior Maddie Burke elaborated on this dissatisfaction. 

“I felt like this senior class and for the previous one (Class of 2021), too, these past four years have been so weird,” Burke said. “I guess I was hoping graduation would be the most normal event we could have, it definitely is definitely a little shocking to hear there isn’t going to be a typical keynote speaker.”

Burke shared her thoughts on how she thinks the student body will react. 

“I think it is probably not going to go over great,” Burke continued. “I definitely was hoping for someone outside of the Villanova community, who could bring insightful and impactful speech to our graduation. To keep it within Villanova does not feel as exciting.”

Burke commented on the theme of celebrating the students. 

“I can understand that logic in the way of giving the students even more of a moment to shine, but I think there’s always that moment [at graduation],” Burke said. “Graduation in its nature is always about the students.”

Burke said it’s been fun “chit chatting” with her friends in recent weeks and theorizing about keynote potential speakers. Burke and company, along with many University students, speculated that Jay Wright would speak after his recent retirement announcement. 

Father Peter admitted that he had not yet mentioned the retired coach.

“Well, I haven’t asked him yet,” Father Peter said. “Wouldn’t that be a surprise.”

Commencement this year will look similar to the model in 2021 – with some changes. 

“The student speaker is coming back this year,” Father Peter said. “We didn’t have one last year, but Daniel Gorman from the Villanova School of Business has been selected as the speaker.” 

Father Peter detailed old traditions that would be returning to the commencement stage this May. 

“Faculty, they weren’t there last year, and I’ll talk, I did last year as well, but I talk at every graduation,” Father Peter said. “I got rave reviews last year, and the virtual one I did as well. And the other thing that’s returning that we didn’t go last year is the Last Lecture. So there is a faculty member voted on by the senior class to do this last lecture.”

Father Peter elaborated on the plans for commencement weekend. 

“Friday undergraduates, Saturday graduates,” Father Peter said. “Friday afternoon ceremony will be for all undergraduates.”

Father Peter additionally detailed a champagne toast that will take place for the graduates on the Thursday preceding graduation and the return of the Blue and White Bash as part of the weekend festivities. 

“That’s basically the shape of it,” he said. “I’m just praying for good weather.”