TAMPA — If you’ve graduated from the University of South Florida since the school began to mature in the 1980s, Stuart Silverman has spoken your name.
And those of your siblings, if they’re Bulls. Maybe even your parents or offspring if they’re also USF alumni.
Since 1987, Silverman has been the official reader at USF commencement ceremonies, providing the proper pacing and hopefully the correct pronunciation of almost 100,000 names.
He takes the mic for the last time today as nearly 6,500 USF students prepare to don their robes and mortarboards for the grand walk across the stage over the next four days.
“Unlike other schools, we have a lot of first-generation students,” Silverman said. “We have a lot of poor students that receive a lot of governmental aid. So for many of our students, college is just a heck of an accomplishment. I just like to be a part of that moment.”
Silverman, 69, will retire after today’s 1:30 ceremony for departments in the College of Arts and Sciences.
In the early days, he’d take name cards to professors in the various language departments to help him enunciate — “some of them are pretty darn tough,” he said — but with experience came confidence.
Of course, reading names on graduation day wasn’t his only duty.
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He arrived at USF in 1970 as a professor of educational psychology, and in 1987 — the same year he announced his first commencement — he became director of the school’s honors program.
Back then, 40 or 50 students were involved in the program for advanced learners. He took in 54 in his first class, and the program, now the USF Honors College with Silverman serving as dean, admits close to 600 a year as freshmen and has about 2,000 students active in the college overall.
Honors students take a series of high-end liberal arts courses taught by experienced professionals. They spend a year on an individual research project and work with a faculty member on a graduate thesis. And there is an international component, concluding with students visiting countries they have studied.
“He’s leaving huge shoes to fill,” USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said of Silverman. “The good thing is, and it is borne out by the robust enrollment numbers, that the Honors College is in tremendous shape. And that’s in large part due to Dr. Silverman’s uncompromising commitment to students. He defines, in so many ways, student-centricity.”
Evidence of honor students’ success is everywhere in Silverman’s office and lobby space in the Honors College.
It became a tradition for students to bring him back a rock or some souvenir from where they visited. Shelves in the lobby contain rocks from the Aegean Sea; the Palace of Versailles in France; Exmouth, Australia; Haifa, Israel; and Belize.
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Silverman’s office décor includes a sombrero from Guatemala; a totem from the Suquamish Nation in Washington state; a hat from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan; a carved leopard from Africa; and cola cans from China and the Middle East.
“They’re fantastic students,” Silverman said. “They’re competitive with any student anywhere in the country.”
As evidence, he points to the big-name scholarships — the Rhodeses, Marshalls, Fulbrights, Goldwaters — landed by USF students. Silverman said USF boasted about 10 winners in its first 50 years as a university; now it lands about 40 of the high-end awards a year.
Four-plus decades at USF saw a lot of changes. Silverman recalls few buildings on campus when he started. Like many early Bulls, he picked sand spurs from his sandals as walked across the barren property. Enrollment was about 13,000 and few students lived on campus.
“Everything about this place has changed,” he said. “I look at this place and say, ‘Oh, wow.’ But it’s not just about the physical. It’s also about quality. A degree from this place at this point in time is competitive with a degree from anywhere … This is now a major-league university.”
Silverman and his wife will split their time between New York City, where they have bought a small apartment on the Upper West Side, and Tampa. He said he’ll “do my best to impose myself on the university” as a volunteer.
“I will find ways to keep in the life of the university,” Silverman said. “It’s my home. I love this place.”
And he’ll cherish the memories of that graduation stage.
“You take those cards, and it’s just so clear to many of them that this is an accomplishment they didn’t expect. For many of them, it’s a hell of an accomplishment. I have enjoyed being a part of it. That’s the one thing I will miss when I leave here.”