This year should be the one when higher education at last comes to our collective senses about celebrity commencement speakers. The bread-and-circuses spectacle that commencement has become on too many campuses demeans the true purpose of the ceremony.
From former Princeton University President William G. Bowen chastising the Haverford protesters who objected to Robert J. Birgeneau’s invitation (declined), to Chef Jose Andres being the foil for a celebrity video clip at George Washington University, mocking the whole idea of celebrity speakers, commencement speeches have become all about the speakers (or the withdrawn or disinvited speakers) with hardly a word about the graduates.
Indeed, the silence of the invited speakers who have withdrawn, rather than face the discomfort of protest and disagreement, says more about the banal state of commencements today than all of the thousands of platitudes uttered by those who actually did speak this year.
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Celebrity commencement speaker controversies are hardly new. Decades before P. Diddy sported doctoral stripes on Howard University’s graduation stage, Dick Cavett was the speaker of choice, topping lists made by seniors in the 1970s who feared boredom, or worse, a serious lecture on the day that supposedly marked their highest intellectual achievement. Colleges indulged the popular speaker lists to appease students and gain publicity. Cavett, a genial talk show host in the mid-20th century, was in high demand for about a decade, addressing graduates at Yale University, Vassar College and Johns Hopkins University, among others.
But his 1984 speech at Yale provoked an angry response about the “Graduation from Hell” from Yale ’84 feminist writer Naomi Wolf for Cavett’s comments about Vassar women. Wolf’s comments came in her own commencement speech at Scripps College in 1992. Cavett replied in a New York Times letter that Wolf missed the obvious humor in his remarks, incurring a reply from a male letter writer, also Yale ’84, who condemned the whole thing as “boorish alumnus blather.”
At least the Cavett controversy included an actual speech and some spirited, even extenuated, public debate. Today’s “controversies” hardly amount to more than boorish behavior on both sides, with speakers withdrawing in fits of pique after learning of protests by campus constituents wielding the ire of entitlement to have only people with whom they agree speak to them on the big day. Muffling speech is the antithesis of what all that learning should have been about.
Some critics this year blame leftist politics for the protests against former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at Rutgers and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde at Smith. Such critics seem to have forgotten the truly hyperbolic right-wing frenzy over President Obama’s 2011 commencement appearance at the University of Notre Dame, and Secretary of Health and Human Service Kathleen Sebelius’s 2012 appearance at a diploma ceremony at Georgetown. Many people who denounce a Michael Bloomberg or Chris Christie on the graduation dais express umbrage over threats to academic freedom when a bishop stomps his crozier on a speaker choice.
Let’s stop the madness. Colleges and universities have 364 other days each year to invite celebrity speakers and gain the notoriety that comes with controversial speakers. The best result of this year’s speaker controversies might be a serious re-examination of the whole idea of commencement as a venue for commercial entertainment and institutional bragging rights, rather than a modestly festive-but-stately ceremony concluding a period of collegiate study.
What’s the point of a commencement speech?
The address should be a "last class" summation of learning, an exhortation to use that learning for social good, a beautifully crafted piece of short rhetoric that is, at once, celebratory and sobering for the graduates. The speech may be humorous, but not tawdry; serious, but not depressing. Respecting the occasion, the speech must respect intellectual achievement and not dumb down the moment. Shorter speeches are memorable for their message; longer speeches are mostly remembered for being long.
Who is the best person to deliver such a speech?
The commencement speaker should know the graduating class, know the college and be able to embed the institution’s values and shared experiences of the students in the remarks -- ideally a faculty member or a local community leader.
One of the greatest problems with celebrity speakers is that they tend to walk onto the stage cold, knowing little about the students they are speaking to, delivering an address that might even have been given at another university in the previous week.
As the ongoing speaker controversies reveal, the whole point of the commencement speech has become subrogated to the identity of the speaker. Speech controversies arise because both institutions and students put more emphasis on who the speaker is --- preferably a very famous celebrity --- than on what the speaker is supposed to say. Consequently, the very identity of the speaker becomes the flashpoint before the person has uttered a single word.
Colleges and universities reap what they sow when the celebrity of the speaker becomes more important than the purpose of commencement. The time has come to restore the idea of the celebration of academic achievement to center stage on graduation day. Turning commencement into a sideshow of anger and recrimination is no way to end a student’s academic experience.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.