Is anyone speaking at commencement ceremonies this year? Or, why are rich & powerful people such wimps?

Are you seriously telling me that a former chancellor of a major university, a former U.S. Secretary of State, and the current head of the International Monetary Fund are so allergic to complaints about them that they can’t bring themselves to speak to graduating classes unless they’re assured that no one will offer anything harsher than polite applause in response to their remarks?  I guess the rich and powerful really are different from us–they think that their work and decisions should put them above any questions or criticism from the mere hoi polloi.  What a bunch of wimps!

Students and faculty are perfectly within their rights to question the bestowal of honorary degrees on these speakers.  But from what I’ve seen, speakers are declining to appear at commencements if anyone merely questions the righteousness of their appearance on campus on Twitter or other social media, or stages a few sit-ins or teach-ins.  So my question is, is it really students or higher education that’s being closed-minded here, or is it enormously wealthy and powerful people who need to suck up a little guff while they’re picking up their honorary degrees?  (And in the case of Condoleeza Rice, $35,000 as well?)

Who’s speaking at your graduation?  (I don’t even know who’s speaking at the ceremony I’m attending on Friday afternoon.  Usually it’s a faculty member or a local pol or alum–no one particularly interesting or controversial.)  Do you even care?

23 thoughts on “Is anyone speaking at commencement ceremonies this year? Or, why are rich & powerful people such wimps?

  1. Another factor has to be that higher ed these days is so totally terrified of anything that might be called “controversial.” Which is amusing, in a sad way, for institutions that are supposed to be dedicated to wrestling with ideas that people are passionate about. We had Condi here a few years ago (not for commencement) with nary a peep. I am particularly puzzled about Christine Lagarde’s withdrawal, since everything I’ve read about her is that she is very tough and focused, and would seem to be an excellent Smith choice. IMF policies have been fiercely criticized for years, so what’s different now?

    Our speaker this year is a well-respected journalist, but over the years we have all kinds: major corporate heads, former senators and cabinet officers, and Al Gore. We complain about how politically disengaged our students can be, but sometimes it’s a relief.


  2. The guy who owns the Kentucky Bourbon Ale brewery (among other things) spoke at ours. It was fine, I suppose, though quite businessy and out of touch with our graduates’ prospects for after graduation.

    Historically, recall exactly three of our graduation speakers: 1) White House journalist Helen Thomas (awesome), 2) Wendell Berry (Awesome), and 3)Steve Zahn of movies such as Reality Bites and You’ve Got Mail (true story: I saw him walking with one of my colleagues and totally thought he was a professor because he “looked familiar,” and he was in regalia after all, thus said how great it was to see him again…. woops – and his speech was all about how you don’t need a college degree to be successful….)


  3. I’m a tiny bit of two minds here. I can fully see the logic of this post, and have no real sympathy for rich globetrotting dispensers of vapid cliché and collectors of faux diplomas, or objection to protests. But without having followed the stories closely, there seems to be at least a little bit of brat entitlement here, to see who can drive who off. So you “occupied” downtown Sheboygan and some Chancellor out west didn’t condemn police tactics at his own campus quickly or clearly enough? Not admirable, but not exactly My Lai or Sproul Plaza either. My yearly cohort, which had literally been fired on a few weeks earlier, sat stonefaced while an obscure Senator from Ohio offered us patronizing pablum about how things would work out in the long run. They did; for people and interests like him…

    But, then again, this is almost *exactly* how my tribal unit *always* said we would *never* ever talk or think if we lived long enough to talk or think, which we may or may not have. So, as I say, I’m at best of multiple minds. What goes around… dies out, like the wave in some stadium somewhere….


  4. Northern Barbarian: I agree with you–the allergy to “controversy” is just stupid. Did Rutgers think they could give Rice an honorary doctorate AND $35,000 AND not have anyone bitch about it? Aren’t universities supposed to be places that debate ideas and hold them up to fresh air and sunlight? I take it as a good sign that some students care enough to talk about their grad speakers & get involved. (One wonders why their administrations didn’t involve them more in the selection process.)

    But of course, the way that this plays in the mainstream media and on the right is “universities are full of closed-minded lefties who don’t want to be challenged from the right.” When you look into these “controversies,” it’s the speakers who decline to come to campus, not students at the barricades threatening to shut down graduation if a given commencement speaker comes to campus. Rather than understanding that protests and petitions against certain speakers are in fact free speech and part of the exchange of ideas that should characterize universities, they spin it as “intolerance” by students and tenured radicals.

    Dr. Crazy: that’s a funny story about Steve Zahn, but it’s kinda funny that your administration invited him to speak to your grads in the first place!


  5. Indyanna: Amanda Hess makes your argument at Slate today. I usually like what she says, but here I really disagree with her. I think it’s a sign of the intellectual health and the vitality of a university that commencement speakers are complained about and petitioned against. I’m sure there’s a dose of entitlement in it, too, for the universities of which she writes. But seriously: why do today’s wimpy graduation honorees expect only kisses and warm hugs? Isn’t it a sign that you’ve done something important in the world if you’ve pissed off a large group of people?

    Why should rich & famous commencement speakers be the only people on campus whom it’s forbidden to criticize or complain about? Students complain all the time about professors and administrators. (And now they can do it not just anonymously but also online, so the whole freaking world can see!) Professors complain about students and administrators. Admins complain about proffies and students. Whatever! It’s a university, not Romper Room.


  6. I don’t really disagree. My second paragraph was something of an expression of bemused horror to see an inner Edmund Burke rummaging around in my soul-space! They should let the students elect their own speaker, and by referendum, not via some committee of ambitious networking students who sit on university committees from their first weeks on campus. But any speaker worth anything should make sure to say at least something that the audience out there doesn’t want to hear.


  7. We don’t have commencement speakers, period. I don’t miss them (they rarely say anything new or interesting or truly inspiring), but I feel kind of sad on behalf of my students for the cheapness of the whole thing.

    Or we could all watch this:


  8. I’ve avoided all graduations, including my own, in large part because if I went, then I’d have to listen to speeches. I was always too much of a wimp to even think about doing that.


  9. I find graduation ceremonies tedious, boring and most people dress like clowns. The 1%ers speakers are beyond criticism, beyond listening to us, they expound and we clap. Face it, the U president make 7 figures and he/she decides; we are pawns; grow up.


  10. Historiann, this is the bright side of teaching at no-name inconsequential state institutions – no one knows or cares who speaks at graduation. Here, we don’t have a speaker — too many students to shuffle through the line in too little time. Not that I’m going 🙂


  11. Why do we have commencement addresses? What’s the point? I served for some years at my old institution on the committee that selected student speakers for graduation (usually two). They were thoughtful, funny, inspirational, and usually better than the headliners. Why not just do that, play some music, say “well done” to everybody, and have a big party? Or maybe make the address a job requirement for proffies in philosophy, history, divinity, and the like?

    I still remember the commencement address I heard when I was awarded my PhD. It was given by a professor of philosophy who told us we were living in the Age of Oedipus. It began thus:

    “There are great poems about standing at a crossroads in life, but has anyone ever written about standing next to someone at a crossroads? Parents, relatives, friends, lovers: has anyone captured what you want to say to the loved one beside you? For years, I have had a fantasy of standing at the most famous crossroads in world literature, waiting for the hero to arrive. There is a question I want to ask him.

    I am waiting for Oedipus to arrive. ”

    The whole thing is here.

    These days I sit up on stage and read the names of graduates from my school. This is excellent. The best address I’ve heard from that perspective was given by our mayor. He said, in effect, sorry you young folk, you have some allies among the old folk but you really shouldn’t count on us–we’ve messed a lot of stuff up and you need to think differently than we did. Our most recent commencement speaker was a retired very high profile sports coach who had a masters of teaching and started his career teaching in the public schools. He was pretty good, humble and friendly. He talked about knowing who you are and setting goals consistent with that knowledge.


  12. Our campus does not pay commencement speakers (other than expenses, and maybe a lunch after), and we don’t give honorary degrees. Speakers get a medal. I’ll miss commencement this year because I’m at a conference, but our speaker is a judge from a local ethnic community, the first judge in the US from that group. Decent, and for our mostly first generation students with immigrant parents, great to have a man who arrived in this county at age 8.

    I’ve been puzzled by the cancellations this year, because my guess is that in the end, students would behave “properly”. Also touched, in a way, by the idealism of students, who seem to ink that there are these pure people out there. And somehow, I’d like to distinguish between war crimes and really bad/stupid decisions (Rice vs. Birgenau).

    I’ve heard some good commencement addresses in my time (Marion aright Edelman, c. 1987 or so, with 5rules for living that included, “there is no limit to how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit”: it’s almost 30 years and I still remember it.). The worst, I think was to the graduate convocation when I got my Ph.D: the speaker told us we were not as good as his generation!


  13. tedious, boring and most people dress like clowns

    I don’t get this. Why look down your nose at students who are proud of their accomplishment and the families and friends who love them?


  14. My undergrad commencement address was really good–from Cokie Roberts! She was optimistic and funny, which is about all most of us can expect. The previous year’s speaker was Frances FitzGerald–I kind of wished we could have had her again, once I learned who she was & why she might have some wisdom to impart.

    In the 1980s, I attended a commencement at Boston University that featured Chief Justice William Rehnquist as the speaker/honoree. His appearance was vigorously protested in advance of his arrival on campus, but the only “bad behavior” of the grads on the field was quite mild: some held signs saying “Chief INjustice” and some stood and turned their backs while he spoke. None of them tried to drown him out or bomb the dais.

    What the hell is wrong with that? Why can’t today’s graduation speakers handle that kind of rather polite dissent? Per Susan’s comment about her Ph.D. graduation ceremony: today’s honored speakers are a far lesser breed of human than yesterday’s speakers.


  15. Too many commencement speeches consist of stupid bromides about how to be successful or how to be happy. It would be nice to hear instead something a little less like a prosperity gospel and a little more like an Old Testament prophecy–maybe something along the lines of this: “I’m not going to stand up here and tell you how to be successful and happy. I don’t care if you’re successful and happy. Sh*t’s f*cked up out there, people, and you SHOULDN’T be happy! You should be very, very unhappy. You shouldn’t be happy until everybody’s happy. If you’ve been here for four years and still think higher education is about your happiness, you should just leave now because you don’t deserve a diploma. Thank you.”

    It would be a nice change.


  16. The Lagarde cancellation is the only one I find puzzling.

    A) Why did people really oppose her? I understand that the IMF is a dirty three letter word for some people, but its changed as an institution in the last few decades. Its policy prescriptions are no longer “one size fits all” liek they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Besides, Christine Lagarde would be exactly the sort of “lean in” type speaker they would want to trot out at a Smith commencement.

    B) Why did she back out? She has a lot of American connections and has a pretty amazing career. I doubt a few students holding “abolish the IMF” signs a distraction or intimidating in any way.


  17. My Uni has a sensible policy on commencement speakers….we invite back an alumnus. Saves the obscene speaking fees and puts a realistic model of what you can achieve with a degree from provincial U. This year’s speaker has a Harvard JD, clerked at SCOTUS, and now prosecutes white collar crime. He gave a good speech, too!


  18. polisciprof: I like that strategy! I also think accomplished alumns might also put more effort into their commencement addresses than your average high-flyer who’s paid to speechify at all sorts of professional conventions and meetings.

    Matt L.: I understand that there are a lot of students & faculty who might have been upset about Lagarde. (Smith has a lot more Dirty Hippies than Wellesley, for example, which has a major backchannel funneling their grads into IB jobs. Lagarde would have been a perfect Wellesley grad speaker choice.) But who cares? Why can’t students and faculty register their unhappiness, make their critiques on social media (which is where most of the “criticism” appears to have happened), and then have Lagarde at graduation.

    Our rich and famous worthies really aren’t worthy of their own acclaim if they can’t handle a little social media blowback. Whatever! Someone might say something critical about them on Twitter. Who cares??? It’s not the universities disinviting these folks–they’re choosing not to engage their audience.


  19. Pingback: Your annual commencement speaker outrage reminder memo: purity trolls and free speech trolls alike stand down! | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.