Stephen Stills is well acquainted with Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
When he wasn’t parading the field in his Gainesville High School marching band uniform, he was selling Cokes to thirsty fans in concession booths, UF President Kent Fuchs said.
“He’s said he considers himself a part of the Gator Nation,” Fuchs said. “And now, it’ll be official.”
Stills, an inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, will be this Fall’s commencement speaker at the university-wide ceremony, along with UF College of the Arts Dean Onye Ozuzu, Fuchs said. Neither speaker is being paid for the ceremony.
Stills will be the first guest commencement speaker the university has had in decades — maybe 40 years, said Stephanie McBride, the director of commencement. After changing the format of UF graduation, the university noticed an opportunity to bring in speakers.
“Before, we had so many ceremonies back-to-back, it would be a great request to ask someone to do 10 ceremonies over four days,” McBride said.
The speakers will present at a single commencement held for everyone, McBride said. The band and choir from the College of the Arts will also perform at the ceremony.
“We’re really taking time to celebrate this college,” she said.
If Stills wanted to perform during the ceremony, he would be welcome, Fuchs said.
When Fuchs asked Ozuzu on Sept. 15 to be the faculty speaker, she was surprised. Having just started her time at UF in August along with about 200 other new faculty members, Ozuzu was not sure she was the right person.
“We’re in a moment of welcoming change,” she said. “In some ways, I represent 200 people that arrived on campus brand new in the Fall. Having that voice represented makes sense in the moment.”
Fuchs had also been open with Ozuzu about inviting her, a black woman, to speak at commencement partially to make sure the stage is inclusive, Ozuzu said.
Not only did he want to invite a speaker who would represent the university’s diverse community, but Fuchs also wanted a speaker with close ties to UF and Gainesville, he said.
Stills spent some of his childhood in Gainesville, Fuchs said.
In the 1950s, Stills attended J.J. Finley Elementary School before moving away for a few years, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said. Stills was also briefly enrolled at UF, and a rehearsal room in the Steinbrenner Band Hall bears his name after he donated to its construction, Orlando said.
Months before Stills was approached to speak at graduation, the College of the Arts nominated him to receive an honorary doctorate, Fuchs said. It’s a coincidence Stills’ honorary degree coincides with speaking on stage with the dean of the college who nominated him, he said.
“Stephen Stills is an individual who contributed to the history of music, and he’s received almost every accolade for his work,” Fuchs said.
Fuchs said that although there have been recent tensions with the new format of graduation, he hopes the speakers will cause graduates to reflect on the past and what they have accomplished while looking toward the future.
“In the end, we hope students will see that we’re adding rather than taking away from the graduation experience,” he said.