I've always thought that the “profile" of a college commencement speaker says something about the college where they're speaking. For example, I don't think you would find Rush Limbaugh speaking at Reed College. Conversely, I doubt that Van Jones would address graduates at Brigham Young University. Colleges who maintain a left-leaning stature usually bring in more liberally oriented speakers, just as conservative schools tend to favor right-of-center notables.
This year, there were three high-profile controversies involving students protesting their school's choice of a commencement speaker. Perhaps the highest-profile case involved former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Here's a quick recap of that from CNN:
Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of state announced on Facebook Saturday that she would not be speaking at the Rutgers University commencement this year, following student protests against her appearance.
The students made accusations against her in connection with the war in Iraq …
International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde, withdrew from speaking at Smith College in Massachusetts. MSNBC commented on that:
International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde is the latest leader to withdraw as a 2014 commencement speaker.
Smith College announced on Monday evening that Lagarde was canceling her May 18 appearance at the Massachusetts liberal arts college, citing anti-IMF protests from faculty and students.
Haverford College in Pennsylvania also got into the news for scaring away their chosen speaker. MSNBC notes:
Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor at the University of California-Berkeley, on Tuesday eliminated himself from this weekend's graduation at Haverford College, according to an article in The New York Times. Birgeneau was also scheduled to receive an honorary degree from the liberal arts institution in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
Some individuals on campus publicly opposed his invitation because police used batons to disperse an Occupy protest in 2011 during his time at the University of California-Berkeley. At first, Birgeneau supported the officers' actions. But days later he implemented an investigation because he said he was disturbed by videos he saw of the encounters …
However, speaker withdrawals are the exception, not the rule. In an interesting discussion thread on College Confidential, you'll find a partial list of who addressed the throngs of Class of 2014 graduates. Here are some examples from that thread:
Columbia University — Dan Futterman, Actor and Screenwriter
Cornell University — Ed Helms, Actor
Dartmouth University – Shonda Rhimes, Writer/Producer (“Grey's Anatomy", “Scandal", Private Practice")
Duke University — General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
George Washington University — José Andrés, Chef
Hamsphire College – Laverne Cox, Actress (“Orange is the New Black"), Writer, Producer, and Transgender Advocate
Harvard University — Michael Bloomberg, Former New York City Mayor
Johns Hopkins University — Susan Wojcicki, YouTube Chief Executive Officer
Lafayette College — Portia Simpson Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica
Massachusetts Institute of Technology — Ellen Kullman, DuPont Chief Executive Officer
Mount Holyoke – Deborah Bial, President and Founder of the Posse Foundation
New York University — Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
New York University Abu Dhabi — Bill Clinton, Former President
Northeastern University — Janet Napolitano, University of California President
Oberlin College — Thomas E. Perez, United State Secretary of Labor
Ohio State University — Chris Matthews, MSNBC Anchor
University of Pennsylvania — John Legend, Musician
Princeton University — Former Vice President Al Gore
Stanford University — Bill and Melinda Gates, Philanthropists
University of California, Irvine — President Barack Obama
University of Maryland — Martin O'Malley, Maryland Governor
University of Massachusetts Amherst — Deval Patrick, Massachusetts Governor
University of Massachusetts Lowell — “Science Guy" Bill Nye
University of Michigan — Mary Barra, General Motors Chief Executive Officer
University of New Hampshire — Jennifer Lee, “Frozen" Screenwriter/Director
University of Southern California – Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com CEO
University of Texas — United States Navy Admiral William H. McRaven
University of Washington – Steve Ballmer, Former Microsoft CEO
University of Wisconsin — Jon Huntsman, Former Utah Governor
Wake Forest University — Jill Abramson, New York Times Executive Editor
Wesleyan University — Theodore M. Shaw, Civil Rights Activist
Williams College — Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Yale University — John Kerry, Secretary of State
You might be able to see my left- right-leaning theory at work in the above list.
Haverford College students who chased away speaker Robert Birgeneau didn't get away unscathed, though. Replacement speaker, former Princeton University president, William Bowen, got in his licks from the rostrum:
Pennsylvania college students who were chastised by their commencement speaker Sunday for pressuring another speaker to withdraw from the event said Monday they were dismayed to get attacked at their own graduation ceremony.
“One of my professors called it an 'ambush,' one of them apologized that the college allowed that," said Michael Rushmore, one of the Haverford College students who organized the protest against former University of California, Berkeley Chairman Robert Birgeneau. The protest, which called for Birgeneau to go further than before in taking responsibility for the use of force in a 2011 clash between campus police and Occupy protestors, ultimately led him to cancel his appearance. At commencement on Sunday, Former Princeton University President William Bowens called the students “arrogant" and “immature" for objecting to Birgeneau's speech …
So, it looks like Commencement Wars are heating up. I predict that things will get worse (or “better," depending on your Tolerance Meter) next year. College students seem exceptionally motivated to keep the ball rolling in the area of protests.
Thus, if you get an invitation to speak at a college next year, check with the NSA first to see if they have detected any abnormalities about your behavior that could cause upheaval on that campus where you might speak. Remember: The publicity you save may be your own. 🙂
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.