The commencement speech racket
May 21, 2014
CHICAGO — Enough commencement-speech madness. Enough controversy over who is allowed to speak. Enough with speakers who are simply promoting themselves.
Imagine what it must be like for those who clawed their way into college using grants or scholarships, side jobs and loans, only to have graduation day ruined by a petty political tiff between their campus's self-styled champions of enlightened judgment and an unsuspecting speaker who thought he or she had a shot of making a few bucks by being pithy for 15 minutes.
For a moment, walk in the shoes of those graduates for whom this moment in the sun — in some cases the culmination of an entire family's hopes and dreams that one of their own would be the first to complete this all-important thing called college — was turned into a media circus because the speaker offended the sensibilities of a few of their peers. What was meant to be a celebration — a time to check off one of the items on a list of American dreams — instead becomes overshadowed by controversy.
Envision streams of parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, godparents traveling sometimes for hours to see their baby walk across the stage, only to find themselves listening to a screed about the lofty ideals of diversity in academic discourse that didn't feel worthy of the investment in their family's collective crowning moment.
The commencement ceremony is not the venue for such academic debates.
Oh, how I would have hated it if a stand-in speaker, in this case William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, had wagged his finger at my class, scolding some of us for being "arrogant" and "immature," when I was focused only on my family's Kodak moment.
This happened recently at Pennsylvania's Haverford College, where Bowen had been tapped to deliver the address after students objected to the original choice of Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Birgeneau had been at the helm when campus police cracked down on demonstrators in 2011.
The Wall Street Journal's report of the incident at Haverford quoted Bowen: "If you expect to agree with commencement speakers on everything, then who will you get to speak? Someone totally boring."
Let's hear it for the "boring" speakers, those going before crowds of earnest graduates and their parents to attempt to impart a few short words of encouragement. Not for five-figure speaking fees, not for an honorary degree, or the opportunity to bloviate about his or her latest book, TV show, or heart-wrenching but ultimately self-promoting visit to a Third-World country, but to honor the importance of the achievement.
The only thing less depressing than the thought of every fancy-pants-school graduate feeling entitled to a star-studded commencement speaker they can name-drop for the rest of their lives (and even I'm not that jaundiced) is the thought of avaricious university marketing officers cynically fanning the flames of commencement-speaker intrigue to get their school's name in the news.
More likely, the overabundance of Big Important Commencement Speeches stems from our celebration culture in which every milestone is elevated to the rank of miraculous feat.
We live in a world where children are feted with luxurious parties, bouquets of flowers and balloons, Christmas-like presents, glamorous photo shoots and limo rides at graduations from, in order, preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school and high school. Is it any wonder that colleges feel the need to pull out the star power — tech tycoons, movie stars, past heads of states and late-night comedians — to make the event "memorable"?
It's a cottage industry now, the commencement-speech racket. No longer simply click-bait for websites and YouTube, there are whole tomes being published about commencement-for-future-success.
Internet sensation David McCullough Jr. goes on for 352 pages against our "new cult of exceptionalism" in his commencement speech-inspired book "You Are Not Special … and Other Encouragements."
I adore this premise. However, our nation's university graduates are special. In 2012, The New York Times reported that, at the time, the cost of college had nearly sextupled since 1985. And a Harvard study in 2011 found that only 56 percent of students who entered America's colleges and universities graduated within six years.
Let's honor them — and even more so their families — by ignoring the tiresome trend of commencement-speech controversy in the hope that it will go away.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.