2023-2024 Featured speakers

Commencement ceremonies are made more memorable by our invited featured speakers.

Opening Convocation

R. Gerald Turner

President, SMU

As president of SMU since 1995, R. Gerald Turner is leading an era of unprecedented progress. Under his leadership, the University continues to advance as an institution of national excellence and international renown. SMU’s progress has included increases in average admission test scores, a near tripling of student applications, an increase in enrollment of underrepresented communities up to 33% and a quadrupling of the endowment.

Building on a history of excellence, SMU Ignited: Boldly Shaping Tomorrow, which launched publicly in September 2021, is the third comprehensive fundraising campaign initiated under President Turner’s leadership. The multiyear campaign’s $1.5 billion goal is the largest fundraising target ever set by a private school in North Texas. The campaign for impact aims to build on SMU’s strengths to empower outstanding students, enrich teaching and research, and enhance campus and community.

During the SMU Ignited campaign, donors have already given more than $1 billion, including record-setting gifts to create the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, fuel the future of the Cox School of Business, build on the University's legacy of athletics excellence and much more.

Fueled by these investments, the University continues to advance as a leading center of teaching and research that accelerates knowledge, addresses significant issues, prepares students to be world changers and broadens community engagement. SMU ranks in the top 20% of the best national universities by U.S. News & World Report.

From its home in the global city of Dallas, SMU’s vibrant campus offers enrichment opportunities such as the Tate Lecture Series and the Meadows Museum to students and the wider community. President Turner led efforts with the Board of Trustees to attract the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which opened at SMU in 2013. SMU and the Bush Presidential Center partner through fellowships, public lectures, the new George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative and additional collaborations that bring together students, faculty and global experts to tackle pressing challenges. 

Beyond the campus, President Turner has served on the boards of the Dallas Citizens Council, the American Council on Education and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and he co-chaired the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for nearly 10 years. In Texas, he serves on the boards of the Methodist Health System Foundation, the Salvation Army of North Texas and the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

Before joining SMU, President Turner was the chancellor of the University of Mississippi. He previously served in administrative positions at the University of Oklahoma and Pepperdine University. A native of New Boston, Texas, he earned an A.A. degree from Lubbock Christian University, a B.S. in psychology from Abilene Christian University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He and his wife, Gail, have two married daughters and five grandchildren.

December Commencement

Antonio Garza ’83

Member of SMU’s Board of Trustees, Director to the George W. Bush Foundation, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 2002 to 2009

A native of Brownsville, Texas, Garza’s career in public service began in 1988 when he was elected to the position of Cameron County Judge. At that time, Garza, then 27, was the youngest individual and the first Republican since Reconstruction elected to a countywide post in South Texas. As the county judge and executive, Garza championed essential water and wastewater projects aimed at serving underprivileged communities, expanded the delivery of health services to the indigent and oversaw the permitting and development of two international bridges.

This early experience in government set the stage for what would become the defining theme of Garza’s life – addressing problems and fostering mutual understanding within the North American countries.

In 1994, he was Governor-elect George W. Bush’s first appointment and served as Texas’ 99th Secretary of State, where he oversaw elections and served as the state’s liaison to Mexico. Garza was elected to the Texas Railroad Commission in 1998, an office regulating the exploration, production and transportation of oil and natural gas in Texas. Garza also served as chairman of that commission and as vice-chairman of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, representing the governors of 30 member and eight associate states in the development of energy and conservation policies.

Garza’s expertise and deep understanding of the southern border were pivotal in his role as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico under President George W. Bush. His tenure was marked by his commitment to strengthening the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, a partnership of immense importance to both countries due to their shared border and intertwined economic, cultural and political ties.

Today, in his role as counsel at White & Case LLP, a top global law firm, Garza serves as a director to a number of publicly and privately held companies and acts as a strategic advisor to CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs. He is acknowledged as one of the top experts on U.S.-Mexico relations and on the business and political environments of both nations. 

In addition to his juris doctor from SMU, Garza holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Texas at Austin and has been honored as a distinguished alumnus at both institutions.

Garza is a member of the State Bar of Texas, the District of Columbia Bar and is admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Garza is married to Dr. Liz Atkinson Garza; they reside in both Mexico City and Texas.

Honors Convocation

Randall Griffin

Distinguished Professor in the Department of Art History at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts

Randall Griffin has earned numerous accolades for his dedication to scholarship and teaching on American art spanning from the Civil War to the 1950s. His work has profoundly enriched the understanding and appreciation of the human experience and its expression of this historical period among generations of SMU students.

Griffin has published four books as well as a series of articles in Art JournalAmerican Art and Oxford Art Journal, along with reviews in The Burlington Magazine. His current book project details the late work of Georgia O’Keeffe, who is considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century for her contributions in the development of American modernism. Griffin has also written and spoken extensively about Thomas Anshutz, an influential American painter and educator known for his portraits, still lifes and figure paintings.

During his 31-year tenure at SMU, Griffin has mentored numerous colleagues and students. Additionally, he has contributed his expertise to over 80 campus committees, making substantial contributions to the Meadows School of the Arts and various other facets of the University, including his involvement enhancing teaching effectiveness and shaping academic policy. A 2012 recipient of SMU’s highest honor, the “M” Award, Griffin’s exceptional teaching style has also been recognized on 11 other occasions.

Griffin holds a doctorate from the University of Delaware, a master’s from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s from The University of Tulsa.

Baccalaureate Service

Reverend Lisa Garvin

Chaplain and Minister to the University

The Rev. Lisa Garvin is SMU’s chaplain and minister to the University. As chaplain, she leads religious and spiritual life on campus and serves on the leadership team for the vice president of Student Affairs. With the staff of the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life and the Center for Faith and Learning, she provides ethical leadership to the SMU community, cultivates multi-religious community and mentors students in integrating faith and learning.

Garvin is an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church and connects the church to the world through ministries of justice and compassion. She seeks to create space for authenticity and exploration – where students, faculty and staff come together for sacred encounters that nourish the soul and inspire faithful engagement.

She holds a Bachelor of Arts in European studies from Millsaps College, a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a Juris Master in human rights from Emory School of Law.

Before coming to SMU in October 2020, she served as the associate dean of the chapel and religious life at Emory University for eight years, college chaplain at Millsaps College for three years and held two appointments on the staff of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church.

A native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Garvin serves on Millsaps College Board of Trustees, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society and the Mississippi Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. She previously served on the Georgia Prison Ministry Board and the local advisory board for AID Atlanta.

May Commencement

Megha Tolia

President and COO of Shondaland,
Co-founding director of the William S. Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Cox School of Business

Megha Tolia is president and COO of Shondaland, the television production company founded by renowned Hollywood showrunner, storyteller and writer Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Bridgerton and Inventing Anna. She also currently serves as the co-founding director of the William S. Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Cox School of Business.

Megha began her professional career as a brand manager for Neutrogena, spending the last 20 years building and operating mission-driven, consumer-centric, innovative brands. Prior to Shondaland, Megha spent eight years managing several businesses for SC Johnson, including Method, Ecover, Mrs. Meyers and Babyganics. Megha holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Nirav Tolia

Co-founder and chief executive officer of Nextdoor, Co-founding director of the William S. Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Cox School of Business

Nirav Tolia has spent the last 24 years creating and leading pioneering consumer internet companies. He is currently the co-founder and chief executive officer of Nextdoor, the neighborhood network. He also serves as chairman of Hedosophia, a leading technology investment firm and early investor in Nextdoor.

Before co-founding Nextdoor, Nirav was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark Capital; chief operating officer of Shopping.com, an online shopping website; and co-founder and CEO of Epinions.com, a consumer review website company. In September 2023, he was named co-founding director of the William S. Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Cox School of Business.

Nirav holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University. He returned to his alma mater in 2019 as a visiting instructor for the Stanford in Florence program.