The provost’s office announced on Jan. 14 that Michael Ward will be this spring’s commencement speaker.
The insightful C.S. Lewis scholar is Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall at Oxford University and Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University in Texas. He teaches his Houston Baptist students online because he is based in Oxford. He has studied English at Oxford, theology at Cambridge, and earned his Ph.D. in divinity from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
“It’s fun because he’s not really a political figure as much,” Senior Class Vice President Heather Lantis said. “So we really wanted to mix things up and find someone who would speak to the senior class in a really meaningful way.”
Ward has published several works about C.S. Lewis, such as “Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis,” which he authored, and “The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis,” which he co-edited. He also presented the BBC documentary, “The Narnia Code,” in 2009, and served as an Anglican chaplain at both Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Provost David Whalen said Ward has been a good friend of the college through a common friend: Former Hillsdale College Professor of English Literature Andrew Cuneo.
“Michael Ward was presenting his doctorate of divinity and had stumbled on some remarkable, structural, classical components to C.S. Lewis’ septet that no one had noticed before,” Whalen said. “He then was writing that as his dissertation, and gave a talk on that here then. After his book was published by the Oxford University Press, he came back here and gave another talk. The talk at the Kirby Center had to do with the poetry of C.S. Lewis.”
This first visit was during September of 2001. Ward’s visit was intended to span from Sept. 10 – 13.
“As Dr. Cuneo showed me round Delp, where his office was, Dr. Somerville beckoned us over and told us about the first plane. Of course, we didn’t know at that point that it was the ‘first’ plane. News was still uncertain and confused, but as soon as the second plane hit, we realised that this was a major, major event, for America and for the world,” Ward said in an email.
That same day, Ward was scheduled to give a talk on C.S. Lewis and World War II.
“The subject suddenly acquired a whole new relevance in light of the fact that America had that very morning suffered an act of war,” Ward said. “I remember the atmosphere in the college being very shocked and subdued.”
Ward has since returned to Hillsdale several times. The last time, he taught a two-week long seminar on C.S. Lewis.
Ward said he believes in the value of a liberal arts education that stands against the “increasingly functionalist and utilitarian zeitgeist of much British and American culture, namely “liberality.”
“Not everything we do has to have an ‘outcome,’ nor must it necessarily be done with utmost ‘efficiency,’” Ward said. “To turn liberal education into vocational training is a constant temptation, and one which true liberal arts colleges, like Hillsdale, resist — not because they’re stuck-in-the-mud reactionary redoubts, but on the contrary because they’ve already advanced to a fuller and richer understanding of what the good life needs to include.”
Whalen said, in addition to Ward’s friendship with the college, it’s good to have chances for students to meet and hear someone of Ward’s caliber and character.
Senior Class President Andy Reuss said many of the seniors said they wanted a commencement speaker who would give a speech of substance.
“We wanted to focus on content and substance, and we received just a lot of feedback and input from the other seniors along those lines,” Reuss said. “There was some desire for name recognition, but that wasn’t the foremost thing people were concerned about. We wanted someone who would give a great speech.”
The process for picking a commencement speaker begins with a consultation with the senior class officers, the college president, the vice president for external affairs, and the provost. The senior class officers consult with the senior class, the faculty consult with the president and provost, and the vice president of external affairs consults with his staff.
“It’s a good thing for a commencement speaker, if you can get one, to have a deep understanding of the life of a student, and the life of the mind as richly endowed through and in a liberal education,” Whalen said. “That’s a rare thing for a commencement speaker. It’s good if you can get it. Michael Ward has that. He understands not only because he, not so long ago, was a student, but because he is an academic. His profession is that of an academic, but at the same time he is capable of addressing an audience largely unknown to him, but whose liberal arts formation can be available to him as a kind of common ground.”
Lantis said the reaction from students has been very positive.
“I think a lot of people have been really pleased,” Lantis said. “The consensus with the officers is that they’ve heard a lot of people are really excited.”
Reuss noted that Ward spoke at the Allan P. Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship last summer, and the speech was well-received by students there.
“The students will warm to him and wish they could have had him as a professor. And we might not actually let him return. We might just duct tape him to a chair and put him in Kendall or Lane and wait until next fall,” Whalen said jokingly. “He’s a delightful, articulate, intelligent, unpretentious man.”
The commencement ceremony will begin at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 9.