(Commencement) Season's Greetings

May 8, 2009

Tis the season when “speakers” descend on college campuses, bringing with them impressive resumes or big names, or both, along with some words of wisdom to dispense. This year has, like most, featured a few controversies, but for today, turning elsewhere. ...

In the case of Rabbi Abie Ingber’s planned commencement speech at Xavier University, a Jesuit institution in Ohio, the words of wisdom will be wide ranging. The founding director of the Office of Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier, Rabbi Ingber plans to tie together his parents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors, his own encounters with “two Johns” -- having bamboozled his way into John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bedroom in 1969, and having met Pope John Paul II twice -- and his April trip to Chad to visit Darfur refugees. “I move effortlessly between the Holocaust of my parents’ lives, the '60s with John Lennon, my audiences, my relationships with the Pope, into the Darfur refugee camps," he says.

Rabbi Ingber was in Chad when the invitation to speak at Xavier’s graduate commencement came. “Every now and then we would have access to Internet and I received the invitation from the provost. And recollection says I said something like, 'It’s108 degrees outside and I have a chill in my spine from the honor of your invitation.' "

Meanwhile, at St. Mary's College of Maryland, the commencement speaker plans to share some of the graduates' deepest, darkest secrets -- as well as some of his own. Frank Warren started PostSecret as a community art project in which people mail their secrets to him, anonymously, on homemade postcards. Warren offers this tantalizing preview of his St. Mary's talk: “My plan is to share some of what I have learned by reading over 300,000 of our deepest secrets. Some of these stories may be poignant, funny, or hopeful. I will share some of the best ‘one-sentence Commencement speeches’ that St. Mary’s students submit anonymously on postcards. And I will share one of my own secrets, about my graduation, which I have never revealed.”

St. Lawrence University, in New York, doesn't pay for a speaker to come to campus; the ceremony instead features short remarks from honorary degree recipients, all of whom have ties to the institution. "Our goal is to recognize outstanding people and outstanding, how shall we say, performance in areas that are central to the university’s missions and purposes. But we also feel that too often when you go to a speaker’s bureau and pay a large honorarium for someone to speak, you get a speech they’ve given before," said President Daniel F. Sullivan.

This year, Sullivan, who is retiring June 30, will be among the eight honorees -- “I’m keeping my remarks short, to leave space for the rest," he said. The rest include a group of four alumni working on geoscience and climate change issues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University -- Dale Chayes, Peter deMenocal, Richard Fairbanks, and Miriam Katz.

“We wanted to both raise up their accomplishments and raise up the issue [of climate change] in a new way at commencement," Sullivan said (the university was an early signatory of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment).

Warren Wilson College, a North Carolina college also known for its emphasis on sustainability, is breaking with tradition this year. It's bringing in Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of the carpet maker, Interface -- granted Interface has pledged to eliminate any negative impacts on the environment by 2020, but still... the college hasn't brought in a speaker from the business world since 1962, when the chairman of the board of the McCall Corporation came. (That's unless you count former President George H.W. Bush, who had a business background but spoke at Warren Wilson while serving as vice president in the 1980s.)

"I've been here for 12 commencements and we've had writers, educators, ministers, environmentalists -- nothing close to a corporate CEO," said Ben Anderson, the college's director of media relations.

Other colleges with more high-profile speakers include Arizona State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the United States Naval Academy, all of which are hosting President Obama (his appearance at Notre Dame has become the cause of much controversy, in fact). The University of California at Merced is hosting the First Lady, Michelle Obama, for its first full commencement ceremony. The university opened in 2005.

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