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Announcements about college and university commencements speakers are rolling out nationwide. Tom Hanks at Harvard. Wynton Marsalis at the University of Michigan. Reshma Saujani at Smith College. I think, “Wow. These students are lucky. What an incredible opportunity.” But then I try to recall, “Who spoke at my graduation ceremony?”

Truthfully, I had to google it. All I remember about my undergraduate commencement that it was a clear day in May of 1986. Sporting red regalia, red high-top Converse sneakers, Ray-Ban sunglasses, a cap featuring a Kodak paper box top cut to fit its flat top (I was an oh-so-clever art major) and with my Nikon camera dangling from my neck, I sat among some 5,000 students in Boston University’s Nickerson Field stadium. We scanned the sea of people for our families, attempted to act cool and cracked jokes during the machinations of pomp and circumstance.

While I couldn’t find evidence of an invited speaker online, President John R. Silber did speak that day, which is perhaps why I don’t remember the content. In the four years of attendance, I saw him in person exactly once. His entourage accompanied him (think Mr. Frank Shirley walking through the office with his minions in the movie Christmas Vacation). Silber et al. came into my painting class, where we were working on self-portraits.

I wore a gaudy, salmon-colored rubber bathing cap with big floppy flowers and a blue-striped bathing suit. He momentarily looked at me and then at my painting, maintained his neutral yet consistently disdainful expression, said nothing and walked out the studio door. I felt terrible for my professor; would he get in trouble for my eccentricity?

Silber didn’t seem amused; that doesn’t surprise me retrospectively. When I read about Silber’s presidency, I find he famously fought against staff unions (and faculty who supported staff, like Howard Zinn), the LGBTQ community, and just about anything out of the conservative norm. Silber wasn’t the most popular president from an arts and humanities perspective.

What did Silber talk about at commencement in 1986? According to a short article in The New York Times on May 19, 1986, he spoke about his heroes and concluded, “I am confident that the Class of 1986 will not forfeit the victory that is yours for the daring. Let us stand in the tradition of our heroes, ancient and modern. Facing the certainty of the worst, we can respond to the challenge of the best: of course, we are all a dime a dozen. And we are all magnificent.”

I guess I understand what he was trying to say (sort of), but it doesn’t precisely resonate (then or now). It seems like such a throwaway speech and feels like a wannabe Winston Churchill’s “Take up the mantle of change, for this is your time,” but I don’t even remember it.

Over the years, I’ve wondered about commencement speakers—who are they, how and why they are chosen, will they say something worth hearing and considering, and does it matter? I’ve learned the answers while serving as a cabinet member, speaking to colleagues at the senior leadership level and reviewing the processes of various institutions.

  • Who are they? The answer depends on the institution’s stature, financial resources and the connections its leaders may have to notable individuals. The speakers are usually high- to reasonably high-achieving individuals (an alum or otherwise) who will do so within the institution’s budget. That means some do it for nothing (for the honor of doing it, for altruistic reasons or because of their governmental position, they can’t accept the money). In other cases, the institution provides compensation such as stipends, travel expenses, housing, etc. How much do commencement speakers receive? I once asked several institutions, got few or no answers and didn’t have time to submit a freedom of information request.
  • How are they chosen? The process also depends on the institution. At some institutions, the choice is solely in the hands of the president and/or Board of Trustees, and at the other end of the spectrum, some have a process of nomination, application and selection by an appointed committee, whose rationale and recommendation is formally presented to the president and/or trustees. Sometimes, the nominee’s scholarly work, contributions to society and reputation are carefully considered, thoughtfully debated and rigorously evaluated before extending an invitation.
  • Why are they chosen? At many institutions, speakers are selected because they are outstanding in their field, exhibit courage and perseverance, and achieve something worthwhile on behalf of others. They are a model of leadership and exemplify the mission, vision and values of the institution. At best, the ideals of higher education are manifested in the selection. The selection might be based on the issues of the day and who might best connect with students. But dear readers, it isn’t that simple. Selecting a commencement speaker is also a strategic decision, which to some might seem apposite to our sector’s idealism. Speakers are sometimes chosen as a means of recognition for contributions, to curry favor with potential donors or influencers and/or to signal with whom the institution wishes to be affiliated and aligned—ideologically, intellectually, artistically, socially, politically, reputationally, etc.
  • Will they say something worth hearing? Maybe. Maybe not. Less well-known people can knock it out of the park, and famous people can bomb. And great minds sometimes really deliver. If you’ve never heard (or read) David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, you really should. It is one of the best for its profundity, humor and inspirational qualities. Or how about Nora Ephron’s commencement address to Wellesley graduates in 1996? Empowering and inspirational. (BTW, sometimes I wish Jim Valvano’s 1993 Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award speech was a commencement speech. That’s not just because I grew up in N.C.)
  • Does giving a great or even good speech matter? As I admitted, I didn’t remember my institution’s commencement speech, but I think the expectation and effort to have a great one matters. In 2014, the University of Texas at Austin’s commencement speaker, Admiral William H. McRaven, noted he couldn’t remember the speaker at his own graduation from UT 37 years prior. Nonetheless, he delivered a thoughtful speech about 10 lessons for life.

That makes me think about the value of an education. What a great professor says in class may not be applicable now, but it will undoubtedly be of value in the future as we walk through problem-solving and life. Likewise, as we sit through commencement speeches immersed in our own thoughts and experience, we can revisit messages and advice with new revelations throughout our lives. But the message is lasting and can be returned to over and over again.

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