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Bill Nye and Jon Bon Jovi Among Rutgers Commencement Speakers

RU Board of Governors Approves Speakers For Separate Graduation Ceremonies Next Month in Piscataway, Newark, and Camden
Ed Schipul

NEWARK, NJ—The Rutgers Board of Governors selected television personality and scientist Bill Nye "the Science Guy," and NJ-based singer Jon Bon Jovi to be among the Rutgers commencement speakers. 

William S. Nye, the CEO of the space exploration advocacy organization Planetary Society, is best known for his educational television program, "Bill Nye the Science Guy."

He will receive an honorary Doctor of Science at the massive ceremony to be held on May 17 in Piscataway.   Also present at the ceremony will be Frances Piven, a professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York.

Jon Bon Jovi, a popular singer-songwriter and philanthropist from Monmouth County, will be speaking at the Rutgers-Camden Commencement Ceremony on May 21, where he will receive an Honorary Doctor of Letters.

Bon Jovi is also known for his JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurant, based in Red Bank, which allows lower-income patrons to pay either with a minimum donation or through volunteering at the kitchen.

Also present at the Camden ceremony will be Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for death row prisoners, and an advocate against the death penalty.  

Earl Lewis, a professor of history and African American studies at Emory University, will be the Rutgers-Newark commencement speaker at the May 18 ceremony to be held at the Prudential Center.

Unlike previous years, in which a University-wide commencement ceremony was held at the High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, each of the university's three campuses will have their own individual ceremonies. 

The selection for the 2015 commencement speaker came under fire when it was revealed that the speaker would be announced in April, unlike the previous year when the announcement came in early February.

Many felt that the move, in combination with holding the Board of Governors meeting in Newark as opposed to New Brunswick, was done in an attempt to limit the student input on the commencement speaker. 

The New Brunswick commencement ceremony is to be held on May 17, just over six weeks after the announcement of the speaker. 

Last year, the selection of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sparked controversy almost immediately, leaving students, faculty, and other concerned citizens with a three-month window to organize in opposition.

The opposition proved successful, with Rice backing out of the speaking engagement, and turning down the $35,000 honorarium.

"It seems like they are just trying to avoid another situation like last year," Rutgers University Student Assembly member Matt Panconi told New Brunswick Today.  

"I'm not in favor in secrecy," Luke Svasti, another member within RUSA, said in an email.  "If it's protests they are afraid of, they should be open. Being secretive is juvenille and provacative." 

President Robert Barchi, at the April 2 Board of Governors meeting in Newark, bemoaned these claims.

"I know there's always somebody looking in every corner," Barchi said to New Brunswick Today, "It's nothing to do with that, it's just that due to the schedule of the board meetings, and I think everybody will be very pleased with the announced speaker."

"Nothing going on here that's nefarious, it's just that it has to come from the board," Barchi added. 

In September, the University Senate announced that it would form a committee to centralize the selection process for nominating commencement speakers.

Nominees, who would be collected by the Secretary of the University, would then be pooled together by the Senate Executive Committee.

"The Board of Governors does have the final say on who gets recommended for honorary degrees and who the commenecement speaker is," Ann Gould, Chair of the University Senate, said at a September 2014 Senate meeting.

The University Senate also released a report in February highlighting the fact that Rutgers originally used the 16-member Faculty Committee on Honrary Degrees, and that it was shruken to eight members in 2013. 

The minutes for the Board of Governors meetings and the Senate Executive Committee meetings make little mention of the commencement speaker.

During a Board of Governors meeting on October 9, Gould gave a presentation in which she outlined some of the of the proposed changes to the commencement speaker selection process. 

The changes would be adopted as an interim model for the 2015 and 2016 commencement ceremonies in lieu of a permanent policy to be adopted in time for the 2017 commencement ceremony.