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Articles / Preparing for College / Look Who's Talking (or Not): Commencement 2014

Look Who's Talking (or Not): Commencement 2014

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | May 20, 2014
I can't remember who spoke at my college graduation. Of course, these days (daze?) I'm lucky to remember more than one password or if I locked the front door. Anyway, college commencement season is in full swing and you may have seen some of the news stories about speakers who decided not to show up because of student protests about something they did or what they represent. This appears to be a growing trend at colleges and it's something that has some important free-speech implications (that I won't get into here).

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.

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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