I first heard that Miss America 2002, Katie Harman, was scheduled to be the commencement speaker at the same time that I learned a student had already bitterly complained about the choice to members of the Vanguard staff. Not surprisingly, another student expressed an objection directly to the president’s office. I wondered if my own puzzlement when learning of the President’s choice was shared by other students. I began spreading the ‘news’ of Harman’s selection and gauging people’s responses.
Without exception, I was met with laughter, surprise and, from a few students, no small amount of disappointment. I must make room for the possibility, though, that I engaged with far too many students of the liberal arts and sciences.
I was curious as to the dynamics surrounding the selection of Miss America for commencement speaker.
I placed a simple phone call, which ricocheted from the office of the President, to the commencement office, finally to communication and marketing. Along the way I was met with friendly voices but not a lot of specific information. What I did find was that an executive committee is arranged at the behest of the president to choose a commencement speaker. The process was described to me as a sort of wish list intersected by access and availability.
The heart of my pursuit, though, was to get to the question: Why select Katie Harman, Miss America 2002, for commencement speaker?
This, I now realize, is not a simple question, and there may be no simple answer. At the very least, I sought a statement that said, “Katie Harman is (…) and that is why she should be commencement speaker.” Alas, the machination of PSU bureaucracy is far too sophisticated for such a straightforward manner. As a result, we are left with just this from the office of marketing and communication: “I can’t imagine anyone not being able to tell you why she was selected.” The assumption being, why would anyone even wonder why?
Is it not true that PSU students and college students, in general, are taught to wonder why? Several students voiced questions and illustrated the irony of a non-graduate addressing a graduating class for their graduation. There is speculation regarding whether Katie Harman, after her “reign,” will return to PSU at all. There is debate about the legitimacy of beauty pageants. There is disgust and dismay with a system that tags, judges and ranks women on their “talent.”
On the other hand, there are some who admire Harman by noting her, and her family’s, public dissatisfaction with the pageant commission, which was widely reported at the beginning of the year. None of this debate, however, is to doubt Katie Harman’s qualities or character, but to question whether the often-vaunted “non-traditional” student body of PSU accepts the epitome of American stereotyping and tradition as its commencement speaker.
So, PSU students, presume Katie Harman was selected as commencement speaker because she is Miss America. That, apparently, should stand on its own merits. But it is precisely those merits that are presently being debated throughout campus and today in the Daily Vanguard opinion pages.