On March 3, Henry Fairfax sent out an email to the community announcing that Porsha Olayiwola, Boston’s Poet Laureate, would be the commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2024. Less than a month later, Concord Academy announced a new commencement speaker: New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alexandra Berzon ’97. Why this change took place remained somewhat unclear, but Head of School Henry Fairfax helped shed some light on the reasoning behind the change.

The decision to remove Olayiwola as speaker was made solely by Fairfax, though he met with the commencement speaker committee shortly after making it. The decision came after numerous parents emailed Fairfax and other committee members to express their concerns about the choice of Olayiwola as the commencement speaker. Having seen some of this feedback, it was directly related to Olayiwola's online comments about the Israel-Hamas war. Her comments expressed anti-Israel views and, a group of parents argued, antisemitic statements. Some parents also conveyed that a subset of students and families would feel uncomfortable hearing from someone who has expressed such views in a mandatory setting like commencement.

In previous years, the commencement speaker had been chosen by the Head of School. This year, though, a committee made up of Alyse Ruiz-Selsky, Grant Hightower, Hannah Dunphy, Henry Fairfax, Kevan Turman, Renee Coburn, Shelby Carpenter, and two students, made the decision. The committee took input from the entire senior class as well.

After receiving parent feedback but before the decision to switch commencement speakers, Fairfax met with Olayiwola for the first time. He described that meeting extremely positively, introducing the idea of Olayiwola doing something ‘more dynamic,’ such as a plan for Umoja to visit her new bookstore or other opportunities for students to connect with her. Fairfax described these possibilities as alternatives to her being the commencement speaker, noting that the decision to remove her as speaker was an opportunity for her to engage more meaningfully, consistently, and personally with the CA community. He would not clearly say whether he told Olayiwola in that meeting that she would not be commencement speaker, only saying that there was a ‘misunderstanding.’ In an all-school email, Fairfax said, “It became clear that an all-school assembly, a speaker series, or similar programming, would be a better opportunity [for Olayiwola] to engage with our students.”

Fairfax highlighted the positive conversation with Olayiwola as a reason for his change of plans, saying “[I wanted] to do something more dynamic, bringing her in in a different capacity.” However, he also acknowledged parent feedback, saying “[The decision] required going beyond my personal perspective,” and that he could not invalidate community members’ feelings about the situation.

As most students and faculty alike have read, the Boston Globe and staff writer Nick Stoico published an article on April 17 about the removal of Porsha Olayiwola as commencement speaker. The article primarily focuses on Olayiwola’s perspective, emphasizing that she claims to have been unaware of her removal as commencement speaker until the Globe reached out to her. Additionally, the article notes that Olayiwola believes that students voted for her to be the speaker, and that she believes her politics caused her to be removed.

In a follow-up interview with Fairfax, as well as the aforementioned email to the entire school community, the Head of School clarified some of the remaining unanswered questions. On the Globe article as a whole, Fairfax said, “There's a number of things [in the article] that appear to be guessing.” Fairfax explained that in an email to her agent following his meeting with Olayiwola in late March, he did note that she would no longer be the commencement speaker, which the Globe article also indicates. When asked what he would have done differently in the speaker selection process, Fairfax said, “I wish I had talked to Porsha earlier.”

Fairfax also clarified that Olayiwola did not receive the most votes among students. The top three vote-getters were unavailable or prohibitively expensive, with the fourth-place selection being Berzon and fifth-place being Olayiwola. While students had a say in the process, the final choice was made by the selection committee. Fairfax also said in interviews before and after the Globe article was published that Olayiwola was removed as speaker due to community feedback, especially that of parents. He avoided stating what the feedback was, though he did explain, “[Removing Olayiwola as speaker] would be a way to represent what I've listened to since I've been sitting here.” However, as mentioned above, at least some of the parent and student feedback about Olayiwola’s selection focused on her comments about the Israel-Hamas war.

This process culminated in a breakdown in communications between the CA administration and Olayiwola, with the two sides not having spoken meaningfully since the email following the meeting between Fairfax and Olayiwola. As mentioned in the Globe article as well as in an interview with Fairfax, Olayiwola is no longer interested in working with Concord Academy in any capacity. A week after the Globe article was published, Fairfax addressed the school. Olayiwola, for her part, posted a lengthy statement on Instagram. She writes that she feels “disrespected, devalued, and disposable,” and goes on to describe her anger with the administration.

The timeline of parent feedback and Olayiwola’s removal raises questions about the committee’s vetting process, especially whether or not they were aware of Olayiwola’s provocative comments about the Israel-Hamas conflict before parent outreach. When prompted about this, Fairfax was again cautious, though he made it clear that the committee had not vetted the speaker’s Twitter account and was therefore unaware of her comments. Fairfax explained that the committee’s goal was to vet potential speakers’ resumes, not their politics.

Ultimately, the main factor that led to changing the speaker appears to have been a strong reaction from community members about Olayiwola’s comments on the Israel-Hamas conflict. The process was messier than Fairfax wanted, but Berzon’s address on May 24 will still mark the graduation of the class of 2024. However, one must wonder whether the commencement speaker selection process will change in the future to avoid such conflicts, and how much say, if any, parents should have over administrative decisions.