This is the first time in 18 years that I am not responsible for securing a commencement speaker. Being in my self-described presidential intermission, I have had a chance to think about lots of things, and at this time of the year as I read the announcements of commencement speaker selections, I wonder whom I would have been able to secure this year. I had some good leads, too!
Depending on where your college is located, a commencement speaker can be a big deal. When I was president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., there wasn’t a lot of energy in the city about who spoke for commencements. But moving to New Orleans, I saw that the city had excitement about commencement speakers. It was Tulane’s fault! I mean, my first year in New Orleans they had His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and in prior years the likes of Anderson Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres graced commencement. During my 10 years as president of Dillard University, Tulane would host Maya Rudolph and Helen Mirren, Tim Cook and Ken Jeong.
I saw this as a personal challenge. Could I secure speakers that students and families would enjoy as well as garner local and even national interest, helping to build the brand of Dillard? I think I did OK, as we hosted Michelle Obama, Denzel Washington, Chance the Rapper, Janelle Monáe, Regina Hall and Michael Ealy. Several of them made the annual NBC Nightly News commencement recap video, two were featured on The View and Michael Ealy shared his experiences on The Kelly Clarkson Show. Michelle Obama and Denzel Washington’s addresses to Dillard graduates made National Public Radio’s list “The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.”
I can say I have experience with successful commencements that celebrate students and are lots of fun. I can also say I have experience facilitating events where unpopular ideas are presented to foster rich dialogue and debate.
When I began my tenure at Philander Smith College, a historically Black college and university, I was determined to host a real lecture series, which for me included speakers that thought differently from me and most of my students. The first year of the series I hosted Ann Coulter! I got a good amount of hate mail and calls. But I told people that this was a series, so you don’t have to come to those talks you don’t like, but the bigger picture is that if universities are the marketplace of ideas, we need to hear all kinds of ideas. I continued to ensure we hosted people you wouldn’t expect at an HBCU, like Ward Connerly, Charles Murray and Mary Matalin. I continued doing the same at Dillard with my lecture series, which included Candace Owens, Rich Lowry and Jason Riley.
I took a severe social media beating for not canceling a U.S. Senate debate that former Klansman David Duke somehow qualified for (I still think that was rigged). We simply rented the space to a TV station as we had done many times before, for a broadcast-only event—no audience. But the idea of Duke being back at Dillard (folks who protested had no idea he was invited by the university to speak to students in the 1970s) was too much in an age of “selective outrage,” as Chris Rock would say.
As a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Academic Leaders Task Force on Free Expression, I am fully committed to ensuring that we learn how to “establish a culture of open inquiry, frank discussion and viewpoint diversity,” as we say in our report. I believe we should regularly create times and places for these kinds of conversations to take place.
Commencement is not that day, nor the place.
Undergraduate students may spend four or more years on a campus, paying tuition, going into debt, struggling through tough courses, balancing increasingly complicated lives. When they get to the finish line at commencement, they may simply want to exhale. The tears of joy, shouts of jubilation and praises to God ring freely during that day. Having an exciting celebrity or a great motivational speaker adds to the pomp and circumstance of commencement.
But to bring a controversial figure and then justify it by saying universities are places where we should engage in debates and discussions is ridiculous. A commencement speech is not a discussion. Students (and at that point they are essentially alumni) won’t engage in a question-and-answer period with the speaker. The speaker will have 10 to 15 minutes to share whatever they want, unchecked. You are better off bringing an unknown, safe speaker than one whose politics clash with the prevailing sentiment of your graduates. Even worse, a controversial speaker brings needless bad press for an event that should be pure joy.
So for my colleagues who have not selected your speaker yet, let me say this plainly: commencement is not a class. It is a celebration. It should be fun. Don’t bring a controversial figure and then try to justify it by claiming this is part of the idea of a university. That’s nonsense. Just say that’s who you want and it doesn’t matter what the students want.
I’m also not naive to believe that every commencement speaker choice gets unanimous praise. Someone is going to be critical (some people are critical of everything—that’s their only skill). But why stain a day that should be joyous by inviting a speaker that you’ll have to defend by referencing the value of dialogue for a speech that is a monologue?
Just follow this simple mantra. Commencement is a celebration, not a class.