After an unusually long delay, Northwestern University announced Monday that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley will address graduates June 20 at this year's commencement ceremony - a choice many seniors say is a disappointment for the 150th class to graduate from NU.
University President Henry Bienen called Daley, who has led Chicago for 19 years, "an eminent Chicago leader and a friend of Northwestern" in an e-mail Monday afternoon.
Bienen said Daley's relationship with Board of Trustees chairman Patrick Ryan, also the chairman of the Chicago 2016 Olympic committee, was an important factor in his selection.
"He agreed to speak I believe because he is close to Chairman Ryan, and I hope because we count each other as friends," Bienen wrote.
Daley has spoken at Chicago high school commencement ceremonies, but has not delivered a college address since at least 2000, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education database. Daley spokeswoman Kate Sansone said the mayor would probably use his speech to suggest how students can make a difference in their communities and their lives.
"The mayor has long recognized Northwestern as a hub of higher education in the Chicago region, and he was honored to be asked as the 2008 commencement speaker," Sansone wrote in an e-mail.
Commencement speakers are usually announced around the end of Winter Quarter, Vice President for University Relations Al Cubbage said. The announcement was delayed at Daley's request because the mayor's schedule is not released that far in advance.
"After hearing so much interest and curiosity from the students about who the commencement speaker was, we were excited to let the cat out of the bag," Sansone wrote.
Daley, 66, was elected mayor of Chicago in 1989 in a special election, and has since won re-election five times, most recently in 2007. His father, Richard J. Daley, served as mayor for 21 years until his death in 1976.
Chicago has undergone significant change during the current mayor's tenure. Daley overhauled the city's public school and public housing systems, with mixed results. He has also supervised new infrastructure projects, including the construction of Millennium Park and the ongoing expansion of O'Hare International Airport.
A Democrat, Daley won re-election in 2007 with more than 70 percent of the vote and has received numerous awards for his work. But many critics have accused Daley of disregarding opposing views on important issues and point to allegations of cronyism and corruption within city government. The mayor has been linked to several former officials indicted or convicted on corruption-related charges, including Robert Sorich, a former patronage chief sentenced to 46 months in prison in 2006.
NU wanted a speaker who had a connection with Chicago, Cubbage said.
"It is the 150th commencement, and so we were looking for someone who represented the university and its history here in Chicago, and certainly Mayor Daley has been very supportive of Northwestern in a variety of things, particularly on the Chicago campus," Cubbage said.
Last year's commencement speaker was former "Seinfeld" actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Communication '82. She was preceded by two 2008 presidential contenders: U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., spoke in 2006 and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2005.
Though he lacks the name recognition of Obama or McCain among students, Daley could deliver a more compelling and informative address than either politician, said Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, a frequent critic of Daley and City Hall.
"If a speaker actually speaks about something you know about and speaks truth to it, itcould be interesting," Kass said. "It depends on whether he wants to speak honestly on what's really going on."
Daley offers the perspective of someone who helped Obama advance in politics, the columnist said.
"He's forgotten more about politics than Obama knows," Kass said. "Daley's the guy behind the guy. In real terms, that's the guy you want to know about. Not the guy who's up there in the suit."
Student reaction to the announcement has largely been negative. Eight hours after The Daily posted an initial story about the announcement online, more than 70 comments had been posted about the selection, with several calling Daley a "letdown."
"NU made a mistake and shafted the seniors on the 150th commencement," Weinberg senior Rachel Gandell said. "I expected a lot more."
Weinberg senior Gihyun Myung said she thought the speaker would be more nationally known.
"I don't think it's a matter of publicity, but the quality of the speech," she said. "He's a person who's more knowledgeable about Chicago."
Cubbage called Daley a "plainspoken and straightforward person."
"He is someone who speaks from the heart all the time; sometimes people criticize him for that," Cubbage said.
"He's someone who understands well the value of education, understands very well the value of NU to the Chicago metropolitan area, and the university has had a great relationship with the city because of his efforts. Students will be able to relate to him."
Emily Glazer, Nomaan Merchant, Libby Nelson and Nathalie Tadena contributed to this report.