Reflections on 180 Commencements

Milton Greenberg offers some thoughts on speakers, honorary degrees, protests and the joy of the day.

June 10, 2008

According to my calculations I have been to about 180 commencement ceremonies and I loved every one of them. I attended each event at which my attendance was expected, except, oddly, two of my own -- though I did attend my high school and master’s degree events.

This dutiful performance is largely explained by my having been an administrator for more than half my career and an active participant in commencement programs. But other factors add to the total. The universities I served held both winter and spring ceremonies and at some schools, summer, for those completing their work then. What greatly added to the total for me is the practice at American University, where I last served, to hold at least three different complete ceremonies for combinations of its various schools on one day and another ceremony for its law school on a different day, each with speakers, honorary degrees and awarding of degrees. One year I conducted a full ceremony at a graduate business program we had in Rome.

Early in my career as a faculty member I got on the high school commencement speaker circuit in the rural areas of Michigan. For a natural born city slicker, these were charming educational life experiences. The high school might serve an entire county or a group of small towns. Commencement was a major social engagement with families, friends, clergy and community leaders noisily gathered in the school gym or auditorium. The main speaker was expected to be uplifting and humorous and I am admittedly discomfited now when I review these speeches made in the late 1950s and early 1960s just as one may refrain from showing photos of how you dressed or combed your hair when you were young.

Fewer high school graduates were college bound then and no one (including the speaker) was impacted by cable television or computers I remember scenes from long lost small town America. One good, humorous (corny?) speech led to recommendations among the area school administrators and one year I gave three speeches in one week. My wife always accompanied me and we were given celebrity status, followed often by a newspaper clipping regarding the event. The going rate was $100 plus expenses, comparable today to something in the range of $800 to $1,000. Not bad for an assistant or associate professor in a regional state university. My career as a commencement speaker ended when new jobs took me to big cities with different traditions, with the exception of an invitation when I was an academic vice-president to speak at a large community college graduation exercise back in Michigan.

Added to the total are the high school, college and graduate school commencements of each of my two children and more recent attendance at high school graduations of my grandchildren.

Perspectives on a graduation exercise vary substantially based on your level of participation – student, parent, grandparent, faculty member – largely passive but often very emotional, and those with parts requiring some degree of preparation - department chair, program director, dean, provost, president, guest speaker or honorary degree recipient. I have served in each of these roles, including, happily, as a recipient of an honorary degree.

I suspect that the more heavily you are involved in the actual ceremony, the more enjoyable the experience and you can’t beat the pleasure of sitting on the stage watching the students walk by to receive their diplomas, smiling broadly, shaking hands firmly, often to the accompaniment of joyful cries from proud family members. Special hugs or handshakes from members of the platform party for graduating family members or close friends adds to the celebratory scene.

Some students and faculty express dismay about attending these ceremonies, but I always viewed such disclaimers of interest as a juvenile attempt at sophistication or another anti-administration protest. At almost every ceremony some students will use the gown to cover shorts and a T-shirt, visible at the neckline and below the knees or emblazon some sign on their rakishly worn mortar board in one last attempt to attract attention. I have seen several faculty members with book or journal in hand, reading during the entire ceremony. Call me sentimental but positive rites of passage are important and none could be more joyful to so many people as the earning of a degree with their peers, the faculty and their family in attendance. Moreover, it is the shared formal rite of the academic community. A modest degree of decorum and good manners would seem to be in order.

Many colleges and universities have long-lived traditions and rituals for graduates to perform from running naked across the quad the night before the graduation program to having your photograph taken clad in cap and gown seated upon a revered statue. These rites of passage, some quite bizarre, bid farewell to carefree days as you head to the “real world.”

I have always enjoyed the music of commencement – "Pomp and Circumstance." Few of the millions of people who hear it at most graduation ceremonies know anything about it. It is the first of five Pomp and Circumstance Marches Op. 39 by the British composer, Sir Edward Elgar. First performed in 1901 in Liverpool, it became known as the graduation song after being played at Yale University in June, 1905 where Elgar received an honorary degree. The Elgar Foundation ascribes the success of the tune to its conveying both triumph and nostalgia, which it certainly does. In high schools, students frequently march in tune to the music in carefully rehearsed steps.

Tribute should also be paid to the sheer management of a commencement which is a substantial line in the university budget, requiring time, people and long preparation including the ancillary but vital services of the registrar, events planners, cap and gown organizers, musicians, parking and security forces, and even the development office staff at subsequent receptions.

The major sources of problems in commencement exercises are the selection of major speakers and the awarding of honorary degrees. Usually the speaker and the honorary degree go together requiring that the speaker be not only well known but deserving of a very special honor. Some celebrities command as much as $50,000 or more for a brief commencement address. This accounts for the large number of well known journalists, authors, politicians, actors and television personalities who fill the speaker’s slot. It is increasingly rare to find a truly distinguished scholar, whose name is known to few in the audience, at the podium receiving the honorary doctoral hood.

Each year, several campuses seem to become embroiled in issues of whether the speaker is famous enough or deserving of recognition and whether a protest over the choice will develop. It is believed that the prestige of an institution can be measured by the choice of speaker and the willingness of the distinguished person to accept. Apparently some believe that the prestige of the institution will be enhanced by staging a protest against unworthy guests. The latter is more apt to draw media attention. When a protest occurs, it is safe to guess that the object of the protest by students and faculty will be a right wing personality perceived to be the purveyor of unpopular views related to such issues as civil liberties and civil rights, race and gender, religion, international conflicts or social programs. Protests over the appearance of the president or vice president of the United States are not uncommon. Protests take the form of demonstrations and leafleting outdoors but at the commencement itself the common format other than booing and hissing, is standing up with one’s back to the speaker to show disrespect. I find such activity regrettable and poor representation of campus life and educational theory but I hasten to avow my defense of their right to peacefully behave improperly.

It would be worthwhile to reconsider all the energy expended on the speaker issue on an almost continuous basis. The use of a campus committee to screen potential speakers is increasingly common to avoid conflicts and protests. I confess that in spite of my strong positive feelings about commencement, I have never really understood this drive for indirect status through having a celebrity on campus on what ought to be a closely held event. By that I mean that any speeches or honors should be the purview of highly achieved campus alumni or deserving students and professors. Some colleges do this and I strongly endorse this policy of honoring your own, who in some cases might indeed be or become celebrities.

There appears to be widespread agreement that few people remember who the speaker was at their graduation and none recall anything that was said. My own experience and informal survey of other shows this to be true. Now and then a major policy statement emerges at a commencement from a political leader that acquires historic status such as the 1963 speech by President John F. Kennedy on arms control at American University or the 1947 Marshall Plan address by then Secretary of State George C. Marshall at Harvard. But even then, recognition of the significance of the speech may be long delayed.

Annually, many media outlets run examples of what is being said at commencement ceremonies by famous people. Usually it amounts to pleas to use your life “in service to mankind” and to “give back” to society for your good fortune, which is pretty much what I said when I spoke to high schools. It is rare for the successful and often wealthy speakers to suggest that you imitate their lives by fighting and clawing your way to the top.

In the course of my own varied opportunities to speak at commencement ceremonies as a dean, provost and president, I did have favorite concluding remarks which summed up what I believe the day was all about. I told the graduates that I hoped that they had benefited from what we had to offer them, boiled down to two points – first, that they had learned to recognize nonsense when they see, hear or read it and second, that they felt proud of having been a part of this university. Then I wrapped it up with this:

“Each of you, as in the Wizard of Oz, has followed your own yellow brick road to this time and place. You will recall that the Wizard solved the problem of the tin man’s lack of a heart by giving him a ticking clock, the lion’s cowardice by giving him a medal, and most important for this occasion, the scarecrow’s lack of a brain by giving him a diploma. I hope we have strengthened both your heart and courage and that the diploma you are about to receive confirms rather than initiates your brain power.”

That strikes me as an adequate commencement address requiring neither a fee nor an honorary degree.


Milton Greenberg is professor emeritus of government at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.


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