With commencement season looming, colleges are announcing speakers. At least a handful of these announcements are likely to spark some controversy. Whether the college has chosen a speaker who is divisive or simply too expensive, or whose fee is too secret, or who isn't deemed serious enough, such controversies have become a relatively consistent springtime staple in academe.
Bradley University, in Illinois, has decided this year to dodge the issue entirely, but, its president said, mostly just to save time.
“Spending an extra hour to listen to somebody speak that probably nobody wants to hear in the first place seems like not a very smart thing to do,” said Gary Roberts, who assumed the position of president at Bradley in January. “I’m told the ceremonies were dragging on for over three hours. I lose attention after about 30 minutes.”
The university graduates roughly 900 undergrads a year in a three-hour ceremony attended by about 6,500 guests. All the students walk the stage as their name is read and pose for a photo. Last year the commencement speaker portion of the ceremony added up to 40 minutes, between the introduction, conferring of an honorary degree and the speech itself, which was given by Bradley alumnus and investment banker Howard Lance. A student, a recent alum and the president also speak during Bradley's ceremony and will continue to do so.
Speakers from previous years all boasted similar levels of moderate to low name recognition and a business-heavy CV. They’ve included Jerre L. Stead, executive chairman of the publishing company IHS Inc.; Jeff Hoffman, a founding team member of Priceline.com; and William Clay Ford Jr., grandson of Henry Ford. While the commencement speaker debates that make headlines tend to involve big names, most colleges can't afford their speaking fees and select lesser-known business leaders to fill many of the slots.
Dropping the commencement speaker will also save the university a “moderate sum” in travel costs and lodging, Roberts said. “But that had nothing to do with the decision.” Bradley didn’t pay its commencement speakers. Instead it used an honorary degree as a “sort of a form of compensation, to get them to come.”
Nor is Bradley alone in its decision, even if most colleges do invite outside speakers. Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, where Roberts worked last, also declines to bring in a speaker for its campuswide convocation. Cornell University has long prided itself on having just the president speak and not giving out honorary degrees.
“From a personal standpoint, it also relieved me of having to go through the process of finding a speaker that would be someone who would be uplifting for everyone …. Trying to find someone that all of the grads wanted to hear from was itself a difficult task,” Roberts said. “These days almost everyone is controversial in some way.”
Debates over commencement speakers often focus on their political beliefs or actions, and just this year, many at Barnard College argued that a minority woman should have been selected instead of author and New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is white. Speaking fees, like the $135,000 the University of Houston paid Matthew McConaughey or the $110,000 the University of Oklahoma paid Katie Couric, have also raised eyebrows in the past.
Despite the risk of controversy, Roberts said, “I would have been willing to do it if I thought having a commencement speaker was important …. It’s a tradition in America that seems to have taken hold, and I’m not quite sure why.”
In response to the decision, Roberts said, “So far I’ve heard nothing negative, and I’ve heard several positive comments.” The announcement was only made a few days ago, though, so, “There may be some students who may push back. If anything, they’ll probably push back more because we made the decision administratively without really consulting the students.”
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