Ever since Georgia Gwinnett College announced U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus would be the school's commencement speaker, officials have repeatedly had to explain how they nabbed such a strong guest.
How does a college that opened barely three years ago persuade the commander of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees forces in the Middle East and central Asia, to speak at a ceremony for about 40 graduates?
It boils down to who you know.
Daniel Kaufman, the college's president and a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, has known Petraeus since they taught at West Point more than 20 years ago. Kaufman sent his friend an e-mail in October asking him to consider being the school's commencement speaker and provided about a dozen possible dates.
"Dave is a wonderfully inspirational guy who will deliver a great speech," Kaufman said. "We worked around his schedule. This isn't the type of situation where you say what day you want him."
Commencement speakers set the tone for graduates and should reinforce a college's mission, local officials said.
But selecting a speaker isn't as simple as making a list of people and inviting them.
It's an ongoing search based on contacts and efforts from staff, alumni, students and others in the community.
Emory University starts working on a commencement speaker about a year and a half before the ceremony, said Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president, who oversees the process.
Hauk convened a group of about 25 students representing different aspects of campus life. He gave them a list of about 40 people considered over the past few years to help them think about potential speakers. Students also came up with their own suggestions.
The selected speaker must demonstrate the values that correspond to the university's mission, Hauk said. The person must have name recognition and be able to give a good speech, he said.
Students chose about 10 candidates and gave the list to school president James Wagner, who made the final decision. Hauk said the president considered availability and the likelihood of getting a particular person.
Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, will deliver this year's address. Fox has been to campus before. Also, the university is collaborating with Centro Fox, a presidential library modeled loosely after the Carter Center, that Fox established.
Fox was on the list Hauk provided, and students gravitated to him, said senior Elizabeth Farrar, who sat on the selection committee.
"I'm very happy with our choice," Farrar said. "At Emory we learn it's important to look outward and hear messages from other cultures. We learn it's important to look at ways to improve the world we live in. He fit."
Some colleges don't have the connections found at Emory or Georgia Gwinnett and use private companies to find speakers. International Speakers Bureau, a Dallas booking service, worked with about 400 colleges this year.
"Everyone does want a big name for the 'wow' factor, but it doesn't have to be that way," said Michelle Lemmons-Poscente, company chairman. "There are many inspirational stories out there. What matters is matching the speaker with a school's personality."
Some speakers don't charge for commencement, while others require six-figures and private jets, she said.
Emory doesn't pay its speakers, giving them honorary degrees instead, Hauk said.
Georgia Gwinnett won't pay Petraeus but will spend about $9,000 on security for the visit. Kaufman said the money is well spent.
"The first and foremost purpose is to give our students a meaningful commencement," Kaufman said. "This also is a great opportunity for our young institution. It has the chance to raise our visibility."
Members of the college's speakers committee said they will have a hard time topping Petraeus next year.
They better start working on it. Emory already put out an offer for the 2010 commencement.
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