‘Today’ show host as Tulane commencement speaker meets mixed response

Presdeint Michael Fitts announced that Hoda Kotd, the former New Orleans-based news anchor and co-host of NBC’s “Today” show would be the 2016 graduation commencement speaker. 

Emma Discher, Senior Staff Reporter

Tulane’s graduation is known for being quite the show, with musical performances, balloons and confetti compared to many schools’ more traditional ceremonies. The peak of the unified commencement ceremony is the keynote speaker.

President Michael Fitts announced Hoda Kotb, the former New Orleans-based news anchor and co-host of NBC’s “Today” show, as the 2016 commencement speaker in a View from Gibson e-mail on Monday. The announcement was met with a range of responses from graduating seniors.

For seniors Ellen Sherwood and Lauren Hellinger, the announcement seemed like a prank because they’re known for their love of Kotb. The duo even dressed as Kotb and her “Today” show co-host Kathie Lee Gifford for Halloween last year.

“I actually found out Hoda would be speaking while watching the fourth hour of the ‘Today’ show,” Hellinger said. “Hoda has accomplished so much in her life so far and I feel like she could be an inspiration to everyone. … She worked hard enough to be able to have a job where she can drink wine before noon and who wouldn’t want to be paid to do that? You don’t have those experiences without learning a lot along the way.”

Not everyone was happy with the announcement. A group of students began an online petition Monday. The petition gained 262 signatures before the creator closed the petition and deleted the original content, including the body of the petition and its header title, sometime after.

“We all feel cheated,” the petition read. “Given the amount of money, work, and passion we have poured into our educational careers at Tulane, we think we deserve better than this. Hoda Kotb is hardly an inspirational figure, and despite the fact that she has had a successful career in journalism, we feel that we deserve a more recognizable and more prominent figure than her. Commencement speeches are supposed to inspire students before they are thrown into the real world. Hoda Kotb spends her time sipping wine on talk shows, and discussing which dog breed is trendiest in 2016. There’s hardly anything inspirational about that. This is an embarassment (sic) not only to the entire class of 2016, but also to the school as a whole.”

One user with the screenname Cynthia Kurtz wrote about her support of the petition.

“I think she does go against what Newcomb likes to think they are teaching women to be,” the user wrote. “Strong, influential leaders and learners. I think it’s great that Hoda worked (briefly) in a war zone. And that she beat breast cancer. Know who else did? Robin Roberts. Hoda had a moment to be an influence and instead she complained about her hair and coworker.”

Sherwood responded to these complaints by referring to Kotb’s career prior to the “Today” show.

“It seems like a lot of people think that she just goofs around and drinks wine but she is so much more accomplished than that,” Sherwood said. “She’s reported in multiple major world conflicts including Iraq, Afghanistan and Burma. Most importantly to Tulane, she reported in the midst of Katrina. I think she will have a lot to say about the spirit and resilience of New Orleans since she had that first-hand experience. I think her perseverance in regards to her career and her fight against breast cancer is so admirable and I couldn’t ask for a better commencement speaker.”

Senior Lena Franklin saw Kotb live over the summer in New York City and recognized that she has had a “fruitful” career. Franklin still felt frustrated with the choice, especially after hearing that diplomas would be mailed rather than handed out this year.

“First they’re not going to give us our diplomas for the first time at graduation, but now they’re also settling for their commencement speaker,” Franklin said. “I think the uproar has been pretty justified. If so many students read the email and were just like what the hell? … I think it’s so important that the commencement speaker is really the best at their field.”

Some students were frustrated and embarrassed by the response to the announcement rather than the announcement itself.

“I was mostly frustrated by some of the negative reactions that I saw just because I feel like the ceremony itself is a privilege, and it’s something that’s put on for everyone as a way of congratulating us,” senior Tara Wilson said. “So to have additional complaints that the name isn’t as big as they want or criticizing her career, saying that we don’t want her as a speaker with no real substantive complaints is really not something that I appreciated.” 

A second petition circulated Monday calling for professional WWE wrestler John Cena to be the commencement speaker. The petition gathered 78 signatures.

“Nothing against the current speaker,” the petition read. “John Cena is a 15 time world champ and he made a rap album. The only better commencement speaker than Cena would be God. The champ is here.”

Kotb tweeted about the announcement on Monday and asked students to share the song of their year.

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