At Washington and Lee University, the university president gives the commencement address each year. I strongly endorsed this custom until I actually had to write my first such address. My devotion to the tradition has further weakened each year since.
Washington and Lee imposes this annual duty on the president not because of some lofty principle, but rather to avoid a repeat of a memorable occasion nearly 80 years ago.
In the early 1930s, the university invited a politician who was also an alumnus to give the commencement address. As the story goes, the speaker approached the podium with a stack of jumbled index cards and held forth for several hours as he went through the cards — not once, not twice, but three times.
In response, the university’s faculty, which had endured this lengthy oration while wearing long, black academic gowns on a hot summer’s day, called an emergency meeting. The professors voted unanimously to have the president, not an outside speaker, give the commencement address from then on. W&L’s board of trustees agreed, ensuring that in future years our graduates and families should rest easy, knowing that if they had to endure a commencement address, it would at least be short and, as an added bonus, free.
Over the years, we have seen a few exceptions to this custom. A distinguished senator accepted our invitation to receive an honorary degree. He also accepted an invitation we did not extend, to speak to our graduates. In this instance, we were caught on the horns of an etiquette dilemma, which we resolved by listening ever so politely to a very thorough analysis of the problem of nuclear proliferation. (That undoubtedly set just the celebratory mood for graduates and their families.)
Each year at this time, as colleges and universities welcome celebrities to address their ceremonies, I know that our graduates must be envious. Their friends at these other institutions will report on having heard this actor or that politician at commencement and then ask who our speaker is. “The president,” our students will dutifully report and quickly add, “Not the President. Our president.”
I sympathize with the students’ plight. And yet, as we see every year, securing the biggest-name speaker is not without potential peril. Celebrity is relative. And, besides, complaining about commencement speakers is a time-honored tradition among graduates.
This is not to suggest that our custom makes us better than our peers, or that there are not impressive speakers whose memorable speeches make a graduation ceremony special. But the issue of who should be charged with providing graduates a last bit of advice is not an entirely frivolous question. To answer it, we ought to wonder what it is, after all, that we hope commencement to be.
We surely want the day to be memorable, but for the right reasons. A walkout in protest of the speech or the speaker, for example, certainly makes for colorful stories at the 50th reunion.
In my view, our primary goal is to create a setting in which our graduates and their families can celebrate together.
It is their day, not our day. It is a time for them to reflect on what they have achieved, a time for them to bask in the collective accomplishments that have brought them to this time and place in their lives.
When I sit down to write the words I will deliver to Washington and Lee’s Class of 2009, I will know that my words are almost certainly not going to make national network news. That is not my aim. I do want to say something meaningful, of course. But it may have meaning only to the students and their families who have taken the journey of these past four years with us. And if I can do that, if what I say has meaning to them and only to them, then that’s as it should be.