Stephen Colbert is our answer

By Matthew M. Robare

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Normally when I get an e-mail from the University administration that’s not informing me that I have a check waiting for me at the Bursar’s Office, I have to gulp down an extra cup of coffee just to remain comatose.

Last week, however, I got an e-mail that opened up epic possibilities for my imagination – yes, I’m talking about the e-mail calling for honorary degree nominations. Now, an honorary degree is nowhere near as bizarre or interesting as the dinosaur tracks in South Hadley or coming across directions for smoking bananas (more on that after Spring Break), but that’s part of the appeal. Sometimes the greatest things have mundane roots.

You ask yourself: “What if?”

What if the University of Massachusetts awarded an honorary degree to—drum roll, please – Stephen Colbert.

To find out if such a thing is even in the realm of possibility, I went to Whitmore to ask some questions. Specifically, I went to the office of Gloria Fox, Director of Commencements and Charitable Giving, who works for External Relations and University Events, part of University Relations. Her main responsibilities include “Planning, implementation of major events, logistics and interactions,” she told me.

She said that every year around the same time they put out a call for nominations “campus-wide, from alumni and we can receive—and rarely do—but we can receive them from the greater community.” Fox added that they accept nominations throughout the year, but don’t begin going through them until after the call for nominations has gone out.

“We have a committee made up of faculty, graduate students, undergrads and a chancellor appointee,” she said. “I’m a non-voting member of the committee.”

After receiving the nominations, the committee meets two or three times to research the nominees and vet them. The chancellor lets the committee know what sort of criteria he wants in a nominee. “The committee puts forward a group of names and the chancellor reviews them and recommends them to the president and trustees. The chancellor can add or subtract names,” Fox said.

The chancellor makes his recommendations to the president of the UMass system, who can also add or subtract names. A committee of the Board of Trustees is in charge of the final review and recommendations then the whole Board votes “to invite an individual to accept a degree from the University,” Fox said.

Those are a lot of obstacles to having Stephen Colbert speak at my graduation, but I think they can be overcome by having as many students as possible nominate him. Sheer numbers showing that he is the choice of the students could carry him through to the final round. Even if the Board of Trustees does invite him, he still has to accept it.

Fox told me that the deliberations of the nomination process are kept confidential because “we don’t want to announce someone as a nominee and then have them not get it – it would be embarrassing.”

That’s why this column is only a wish for Colbert to be nominated. It would be especially stupid to remove him from consideration just by voicing my view that he be nominated. Because of these strictures, I will not write a nomination for him.

Still, if he were nominated and was invited by the Trustees and accepted, in other words, if the dream came true, what would he get as a recipient of an honorary degree from UMass? Officially, I mean, besides an overload of his inbox with invitations to every party being thrown on graduation weekend.

For starters, he would be there at Commencement in May or June and may be asked to speak. He would receive an honorary doctorate.

“An honorary degree is always a doctorate,” Fox said. “One of the things to keep in mind is that this is the highest degree awarded by the University.”

This is something of a snag, I think. Colbert already has an honorary doctorate—he was made a Doctor of Fine Arts by Knox College in 2006. The diploma can even be seen on The Colbert Report sometimes, although Wilford Brimley may have eaten it last summer because it was disguised as a breakfast pastry. So another D.F.A. will not be enough. The University could always award him a Doctorate of Humane Letters, but I think this has to be an absolutely rock-solid deal. The University will have to invent a new degree: Doctor Maximus.

“One of the purposes of the honorary degrees,” Fox said, “especially an alum, is an example of someone with the same foundations who went on to become an important contributor . . . You want people to know these are people who bring fame to the University.”

In the interests of fairness, there are alumni out there, along with non-alumni who still have more important connections to Massachusetts, than Colbert. I couldn’t say who, but they know who they are and someone who is going to nominate them knows who they are.

All I have is a dream. A dream of a graduation ceremony with interesting speakers so that it’s actually tolerable to attend. I’ve had to live through six graduations in my life and only two of them did not involve me wanting to gnaw my arms off at some point. The two best were when my sister Katye graduated from high school, because Jim Jeffords could tell a story; the other was when my cousin Caitlin graduated from high school – one of their alums had gone to Chicago to do comedy. The worst was when Katye graduated from Hofstra – I got sunburned and we had to wait for three hours before her group got to the podium.

Please help the Class of 2011 have an interesting graduation. It could be the greatest gift we ever get, because as far as I’m concerned the choice is between Colbert and living Hell.

Matthew M. Robare is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]