Elon University President Leo Lambert knew when he announced he’d step down this year, he would embark on a journey of doing everything for the last time. During this year’s commencement, he’ll most likely be addressing the community for a final time as president. But while he said it will be an emotional day for him, he doesn’t want the attention.
He wants it to be on the students.
“My primary focus is to have commencement be about the students,” Lambert said. “I want to keep the focus on the students and their commencement and graduation from Elon. I’m really not interested in having the focus be on me.”
In Lambert’s 18 years as president, he said commencement has always been one of his favorite days. But it’s also bittersweet. While he said it’s encouraging to see the pride on student’s faces, it’s equally sad to see people leaving who had developed close bonds with the campus and each other. This time, Lambert is leaving with them, which makes this a special occasion for him.
“In the back of my mind and also thinking from a personal point of view, I know that this might be the last time I could confer degrees,” Lambert said. “So this commencement will have extra meaning for me, I’m sure.”
Lambert said commencement has always been a day of tradition, and he has been grateful to have helped drive some that are still in tact today. One of them has been to have an Elon affiliated person annually speak at the ceremony. Lambert said early in his career, he wanted to make commencement more centric to the community, and having a recognizable face was a perfect way to do it. While he said having renowned convocation speakers such as Watergate reporter Bob Woodward can be powerful, giving members of the Elon family a podium to speak has been one of his favorite hallmarks.
“Whether that be alumni, current students, faculty, trustees, parents and people who really know this community, I really like that tradition a lot,” Lambert said. “I think that it’s absolutely wonderful for alumni to come back and share with students who have walked the same brick walk that they’ve walked and share with them their perceptions on the world and the future.”
By far, he said one of his favorite commencement speakers was Isabella Cannon ’24. In 1999, Cannon endowed a $1 million gift to create Elon’s Global Education Center. At 96-years-old, Cannon delivered the 2000 commencement address and Lambert said she was incredibly nervous. Because of her height, which Lambert said was barely above 5 feet tall, the grounds crew had to make a special podium so she could see the crowd. She was also anxious because she didn’t want to go over her allotted 10-minute speaking time. She gave her speech in 12 minutes,and Lambert said she did so well that the “Today” Show came to campus the next week to interview her.
“Even when you have members of the family speaking, it can draw national attention to the university and it’s all for good,” Lambert said. “I’m glad that we’ve kept this tradition alive.”
While Lambert is proud of the traditions he has set, he said he is looking forward to following in the footsteps of another one. Whenever Elon picks a new president, Lambert will transition into an emeritus role. During future commencements, Lambert said he hopes to be sitting in the crowd and follow the footsteps of one of his mentors, President Emeritus Earl Danieley, an Elon staple who died last December.
“In my new role, I’m sure I’ll be sitting in the same place Dr. Danieley was sitting in, right with the faculty,” Lambert said. “ There’s a good long precedent for having president emeritus in the audience at commencement and that’s right where I’ll be.”
Because Lambert is leaving with the class of 2017, he said his legacy will most likely be intertwined with theirs. Because of that, he said he hopes they remember him well.
“If they remember me by anything, I hope it will be something positive, but I’ve never given that question really much thought,” Lambert said. “I hope it’s something as simple as , they knew who I was on campus and they thought I worked hard on their behalf.”