Whenever I think of commencement, I always think of President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech making quote—“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” For any and all speakers at a commencement, there needs to be a realization that this is the graduates’ special moment. The time should not be filled by long speeches, by overly technical speeches, by politically divisive speeches, or by crude humor. And having gone – to date – to approximately 200 commencement ceremonies, I have experienced all of the above (thankfully, very rarely) as well as many commencements that were virtually perfect.
The speaker at my own undergraduate commencement spoke endlessly (well over an hour). It became difficult to tell at the time whether this was a commencement speech or a filibuster. An endless speech together with being outdoors on a very cool night led to an audience flight of major proportions. My parents, my brother and my sister-in-law all left before the end of the ceremony. And since this was a time before cell phones or text messaging, I didn’t know they had left until I had waited almost 30 minutes at the spot we were supposed to meet at, after the ceremony. At that point, when I called my parents apartment, my mom answered the phone and said they were all waiting for me. With almost no cash in my pockets (my sister-in-law was holding my jacket with my wallet), I headed for the subway. During that ride, I had plenty of time to begin developing my guidelines for commencements. First rule, the length of speeches and the number of speakers needs to be limited. Second rule, a subway ride is not necessarily a moving experience when it takes place immediately after graduation.
Any rule book on commencements needs to include honorary degree recipients. Clearly in awarding an honorary degree, the single most important factor should be the accomplishments of the person being honored. An honorary degree recipient is present to not only receive individual recognition but also to inspire. Therefore the standard for anyone receiving an honorary degree should be nothing less than excellence. But accomplishment also needs to be accompanied by a high ethical standard. The person needs to be honorable. It makes no sense to recognize accomplishment but not take into consideration the person being honored. A political opinion, different from your own, however, should not be a disqualifier (though as I noted above, commencement is not a time for a politically divisive speech). Universities thrive on different opinions; a litmus test before an honorary degree is approved undermines the principles we work so hard to preserve.
The rule book on commencements should also strive to build as much of a personal experience into a commencement as possible. Easier said than done. There needs to be an opportunity provided for the graduates’ names to be read, for a handshake from the university president and/or other university leader, for a toast in honor of the families and friends that supported the graduating students all through their experience. If there is a very large graduating class, too large to do all of these things at the commencement itself there need to be other opportunities built in. Graduating is a job well done; the personal recognition should always be there. And for the highest achieving students, we should do even more.
Even after 200 commencement ceremonies, I still enjoy going to commencements. And what for me still matters most, going back to my own commencement, is the experience of the students. For all of us in higher education, it is the value of the student experience from day one through graduation that needs our greatest attention.