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Articles / Preparing for College / Graduation Speakers: Good, Bad, and Controversial

Graduation Speakers: Good, Bad, and Controversial

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | May 20, 2013

For my older readers out there, can you remember who spoke at your high school and/or college graduation? No way can I recall my high school commencement speaker. I could look it up in my yearbook supplement, I suppose, but I’m too lazy. I didn’t attend my college graduation because I was already working my first job out of state. I can recall the speakers at my children’s college graduations, though. My daughter’s school had Sarah Brady and my son’s had their university president, Harold T. Shapiro. Now and then, controversy arises because of politics surrounding a particular speaker. Also, politicians, especially high-ranking ones, will use a graduation address to make some kind of policy or position statement.

Being a commencement speaker can also be a bully-pulpit opportunity. You may recall last year’s “excitement” about one high school graduation speaker. David McCullough Jr., speaking at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts told students “you’re not special” nine times and said that he was shocked by all the attention his “tough-love” address received. This year’s graduation speaker roster has also had some shake-ups. One IRS official slated to address graduates bailed on her plans to offer her perspective on beginning a new phase of life for the young grads because of the recent IRS scandal that currently shows no signs of getting any smaller. Lois Lerner, who is a 1978 alumna of Western New England University Law School and who also issued a preemptive apology for the IRS’s targeting of conservative tax-exempt-status applicants, withdrew her invitation to speak to law school grads. Small wonder.

Let’s take a look at some of the issues surrounding commencement speakers. Then you can post your anecdotes in the comments section below.

How about the six high school students who lost their diplomas because of their controversial graduation speeches?

– KAITLIN NOOTBAAR: “She used the word ‘hell.’ An approved draft of her speech read ‘How the heck do I know?’ But caught up in the moment, Nootbaar delivered the line uncensored.”

– TIFFANY SCHLEY: She chose to change her original speech and, instead, talked about the fact “that students had had it kind of rough. There was a shortage of textbooks, too many uncooperative policymakers, overcrowded classrooms, and the school had hired four new principals in as many years. Before she could get to the part about how hard the students had worked to overcome the obstacles, her microphone was turned off and the ceremony went on.”

– ABE STOKLASA: “His microphone was cut off after he said, ‘You have given us the minimum required attention and education to master any station at any McDonald’s anywhere. For that we thank you.’ Attendees never heard the next line, which was, ‘Of course, I’m only kidding.'”

– ERICA CORDER: “The 2006 graduating class of Lewis-Palmer High School had 15 valedictorians, who were each given a 30-second segment. Corder and another student were given the concluding messages. Drafts of each student’s speech were approved by the principal beforehand. During the ceremony, however, Corder tacked on a few lines [about Jesus] … she was informed that her diploma would be withheld until she apologized. Corder complied and then filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the school. It was later thrown out because her remarks were school-sponsored and fell under district policy. In 2009 the Supreme Court refused an appeal from Corder.” Heavy.

– ERIC DOMINACH AND MIKE SEBASTIANO: “The co-valedictorians of Middletown High School South’s 2012 graduating class gave a joint speech that referenced ‘Call Me Maybe’ and underage drinking, mocked the high turnover of the school’s staff, and called out individual students for laughable behavior. The remarks were rejected by school officials before the ceremony, but Dominach and Sebastiano gave them anyway.”

Although Katelyn Campbell is one of George Washington High School’s top students, she was barred from speaking at graduation. “The senior recently made headlines when she was allegedly threatened by the West Virginia school’s principal for speaking out against a mandatory abstinence-only assembly. … Campbell and seven other students were expected to speak at the school’s graduation ceremony on May 22, based on their receiving the school’s ‘highest honors.’ However, on Wednesday, principal George Aulenbacher revealed that only the two students with the highest GPAs would be speaking, due to changes in the format of the ceremony, according to the paper. … Campbell, who will be attending Wellesley College next year, sought an injunction against the school’s principal in April after he allegedly threatened to tell the school that she was of ‘bad character.’ She was not granted the injunction.”

The Huffington Post has assembled “a list of the most contended speakers in recent years.” The controversial speakers include:

– Barbara Bush: Wellesley College’s class of 1990 was “outraged” at the prospect of the former first lady speaking at their graduation, saying she did not embody the type of woman the college aims to educate. The choice sparked protests on campus, as well as a statement from George H.W. Bush in defense of his wife. ”I think these young women can have a lot to learn from Barbara Bush and from her unselfishness and from her advocacy of literacy and of being a good mother and a lot of other things,” he said. 

– James Franco: UCLA’s choice of Franco, a 2008 graduate of the school, caused a minor uproar on campus. The student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, wrote that they didn’t feel the actor was “as esteemed as a commencement speaker of UCLA’s caliber should be”; a Facebook group called “UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker” attracted hundreds of members. Franco pulled out of the speech, citing a scheduling conflict.

– Chris Matthews: In 2003, a bishop at the College of the Holy Cross boycotted commencement because of the MSNBC pundit’s views on abortion. Matthews, a Catholic, graduated Holy Cross in 1967.

– Meg Whitman: Controversy got to Meg Whitman before she could even march across UCLA’s stage. The California governor hopeful was scheduled to address the class of 2009 at the college’s business school. But students weren’t having it, especially because of her support for a ban on gay marriage. Whitman canceled the speech.

– Barack Obama: Obama has caused controversy at multiple college campuses. At Arizona State University’s graduation last year, the school refrained from giving the president an honorary degree, saying “his body of work is yet to come.” At Notre Dame, anti-abortion rights activists were flummoxed and angered by the class of 2009’s speaker. About 65,000 people signed an online petition against Obama’s address.

– Jerry Springer: Students in Northwestern Law’s class of 2008 said they wanted someone “uplifting” to send them off, not the host of a talk show featuring people who marry horses (true story) and men who don’t know that their girlfriends are actually guys. Despite pushback, Springer’s speech ended up being well-received by students.

So, free speech doesn’t always get its way, as you can see. Sometimes a person’s reputation or former behaviors and/or accomplishments can overshadow his or her prospective words, and their addresses get squelched before they’re delivered. In the case of student speech makers, their words can result in sanctions or punishment if what they say isn’t in accordance with a previous agreement. The lure of the bully pulpit can be tempting in its ability to have many ears hear what you need or want to say.

As I mentioned above, please tell us your stories about speakers who have stood out in some unusual way from your experience, or even those you have heard about. Inquiring minds wait to know.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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