The Commencement Primaries

Colleges recruit presidential contenders to speak -- and don't do much to make sure their talks don't turn political.

April 8, 2019
 
Obama at Wesleyan in 2008

In December, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who at the time had not yet declared she would run for president, spoke at the winter commencement of Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore.

She touched on familiar themes for a progressive lawmaker: Wall Street greed and the need to dismantle systemic racism. But her words swerved into the political realm even further, taking a swipe at President Trump, whom she said “kisses up to autocrats and undermines voting and basic democratic institutions.”

Her decision to even speak at a college of almost all minority students could be viewed as politically savvy. Warren had just come off a controversy in October, when she publicly released a DNA test that she intended to prove her Native American ancestry. The move backfired when the results showed Warren’s Native heritage was fairly weak. Pundits said she had damaged relationships with her allies by equating DNA to Native American identity and questioned whether she could connect with minority voters.

For Warren, Morgan State was an ideal setting to talk and be seen. She's not the only presidential candidate with that view.

Administrators who court politicians for commencements said they simply do not censor their speeches or police them to make sure they don’t veer into political territory -- they rely on them to be appropriate for the venue.

And in many cases, the colleges are the first to contact these candidates because they believe that hearing from (potentially) the next president of the United States, or another office holder, will only benefit students -- even if it comes with pushback on occasions.

Candidates benefit, too -- with the 2020 election cycle in full swing, and a slew of Democratic contenders, colleges will see more politicians taking advantage of these speaking opportunities, especially if the colleges are located in key primary states.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, for instance, whose presidential campaign has failed to make major waves, will be the commencement speaker for New England College this year, a small private institution in New Hampshire.

Gillibrand’s selection in some ways makes sense -- she is well-known for her fight against sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, and was a major player in gathering support for the failed Campus Accountability and Safety Act. In a message to campus, President Michele D. Perkins lauded Gillibrand’s achievements.

“Throughout her time in the Senate, Senator Gillibrand has been a leader in some of the toughest fights in Washington,” Perkins said in a statement. “She led the effort to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in the military; she wrote the STOCK Act, which made it illegal for members of Congress to financially benefit from inside information; and she won the long fight to provide permanent health care and compensation to the 9/11 first responders and community survivors. Senator Gillibrand is recognized for bringing Democrats and Republicans together to solve important national problems.”

Gillibrand’s appearance would also boost her profile in a battleground state that holds the first presidential primary election of the season.

It was the college, though, that reached out to Gillibrand’s representatives, not vice versa, said Wayne F. Lesperance, the vice president of academic affairs at New England and one of the administrators who helps pick the commencement speaker. The college said Gillibrand’s team eagerly accepted the invitation.

Officials intentionally reached out to Gillibrand, because the college tries to bring in political figures around election time, believing that doing so fits with its mission to teach civic engagement, Lesperance said. The college’s commencement speaker last year was Julián Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary under President Obama, who was seen as a likely candidate for president (he announced his run in January).

After soliciting ideas from the campus, administrators will forward a name to the Board of Trustees, which has a committee that approves the speaker. Lesperance said the pick is based off timing of commencement and interest among students and professors.

The college doesn’t review the commencement speeches -- administrators merely remind the speakers of time limits and who “their audience is,” Lesperance said.

“We’re not looking for them to give a stump speech, or pass out envelopes,” he said. “We want them to be inspirational, or talk in hopeful terms about getting ready to graduate to the next big adventure.”

Colleges and universities generally don’t appear to review the content of commencement addresses. The University of California, Berkeley, which invited Kamala Harris, a California senator and Democratic presidential hopeful to speak at commencement last year, does not vet the speeches; rather, officials “ask that commencement speakers acknowledge the students’ work and ask them to inspire students as they go on to the next phase of life after university,” said Roqua Monetz, a Berkeley spokesman.

Harris ultimately backed out of the speech to avoid crossing a picket line by striking UC workers.

Kean University, in New Jersey, which recruited its junior senator, Cory Booker, a Democrat and presidential candidate, as commencement speaker last year, also does not advise its picks on what they can and cannot say, spokeswoman Margaret McCorry said. Kean administrators reached out to Booker, who is known for his grand, lofty speeches.

“Commencement represents an opportunity for the entire Kean community, including our graduates and their families, to gather together and celebrate a milestone achievement for our students,” McCorry said. “Our speakers are chosen because of their stature in the national and international arenas. We were delighted to have Senator Booker as a commencement speaker. He is a New Jersey success story whose life experiences and accomplishments are relatable to our students.”

New England, meanwhile, in addition to Castro, has brought in John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president and a 2008 presidential candidate; George Pataki, New York's Republican former governor; and Carol Moseley Braun, a former diplomat and Democratic senator from Illinois.

All of them “have been pretty good,” Lesperance said. And while some alumni, parents or even students have groused about the selection of a politician as a speaker, college officials said it’s important that they come. Lesperance said he personally advocates for the politicians to come to campus.

The speeches at New England have delved deep into policy issues, though -- Edwards in his speech talked at length about global warming and the push by college students to bring attention to it, and mentioned the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s part of the deal of conversations that can happen in a democracy and differences in points of view,” Lesperance said. “It’s a fertile ground for conversation for members for our community. We want to take concerns seriously, but we’ve never had a situation where those concerns were a veto of a speaker.”

Part of being an institution of higher learning is that politicians -- presidential candidates -- will be “in your backyard,” said Libby May, spokeswoman for Southern New Hampshire University, which this year has Booker as one of four commencement speakers. Booker is also booked for commencement at South Carolina State University, a historically black university, in May.

Southern New Hampshire’s process for selecting a speaker is similar to New England’s, with a “core team” developing ideas for the speaker and the president giving the final sign-off, May said. Neither Southern New Hampshire nor New England pay their politicians for commencement speakers. May said that the candidates typically don’t accept a fee -- sometimes they’ll ask money be donated to a charity of their choosing.

Then senator Barack Obama also spoke at Southern New Hampshire in 2007. At the time, though he was a rising star in the Democratic Party, Obama was considered an underdog candidate for president, and his early appearances in New Hampshire helped catapult him to the point in the 2008 primary that he only tailed Hillary Clinton slightly in the state. Colleges were a major forum for Obama, and he spoke at other commencements too, including Wesleyan University in 2008 as a stand-in for Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Carly Fiorina, a former chief executive for Hewlett-Packard who ran for president as a Republican during the last presidential election, also spoke at Southern New Hampshire while she was a candidate. May said the institution tries to ensure an even political mix -- and administrators tend not to focus on speakers as candidates, but what their stories bring to the graduates.

“Obama was a sitting senator, and Carly Fiorina had major business experience,” May said.

While none of the candidates have ever devolved into a campaign speech, “at the end of the day they’re still politicians,” May said -- the flavor of their commencement addresses can be political, such as challenging societal injustices. The university does request a copy of the speech beforehand, but never have they edited it for content, May said. She said it’s typically so the university can make arrangements for commencement.

“I don’t believe anybody who has taken campaigning, or even gone on a policy stint,” May said. “They tend to keep it pretty light. It’s commencement, it’s a celebratory thing. They don’t usually go for policy or attacking the other side. I can’t recall anybody doing that.”

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Inside Higher Ed Careres

Search Over 35,000 Jobs

Browse all jobs on Inside Higher Ed Careers »

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top