How to Think about College Commencement Speakers

It's graduation season. Sometime, hopefully before the end of the previous fall semester, those colleges and universities seeking a commencement speaker locked in the deal.

It's interesting to look at the wide variation in approaches to commencement spread across America's colleges and universities.

Some colleges have done away with a commencement speaker. This group argues that graduation is a time to celebrate what makes a campus special, focusing on students, their relationship with the faculty and the staff, and the transition from graduating students to contributing alumni.

Others continue to offer honorary degrees to recipients determined especially worthy of them. In this case, there is no commencement speaker, the president often provides some celebratory remarks that presumably mentor departing graduates, or members of the faculty make comments.

A number of campuses provide neither a commencement speaker nor offer honorary degrees. The variations in this approach are numerous and shaped largely by campus climate and tradition.

Most colleges provide, however, at least one commencement speaker. This can be tricky because various constituencies seek different qualities in a speaker, effectively shaping what the speakers might address in their remarks to graduates through their choice of the speaker. What faculty or staff might consider an outstanding choice may not be seen in the same light by graduating students.

In this case, things can get pretty complicated with at least a handful of colleges erupting over the choice of commencement speaker or the process of the selection each year. One president once confided to me that his involvement in choosing a graduation speaker was the one presidential duty that he most detested.

I asked him: "Why?" His response was: "Because you can't win. No matter who you choose someone will object to the individual, the remarks, the point of view, or the price."

This raises important questions about the value of a commencement speaker.

My conversations with hundreds of students on this subject always ended with the same conclusion. Students want a "name" speaker because they view their graduation as a signature moment in their lives. Having a politician, pundit, actor, popular academic, or distinguished, well-recognized humanist, for example, is somehow a reflection of the value of their degree and the quality of the school. It also enthuses the family members who sit baking in the sun or get wet and cold in inclement weather because commencement is partly about the pomp and circumstance that infuses graduation traditions.

If you fast-forward ten or twenty years, however, these students - now alumni separated by time from their college graduation day -- often cannot remember who served as their commencement speaker.

If a college seeks a graduation speaker, here are a number of tips shared by those of us who have been through numerous commencement ceremonies.

Be careful of the politics, looking at graduation speakers longitudinally. A liberal speaker one year suggests the need for some balance in another graduation season.

Watch the price. If some speakers - like the governor - do not receive a fee then a case can be made over time for a higher fee for a future speaker, if the speaker is qualified, well recognized, and has something to say.

The best speakers always share two traits in common. The first is that they are brief. The second is that they can relate to the students.

Sometimes things go wrong.

In my first year as a college president, we had a well-known U.S Senator speak. His choice of topic differed from our understanding of what he might say. At a critical moment as the speaker was winding down before a largely disinterested if polite audience of about 8,000 people, the provost spoke directly into a live lapel microphone and asked me sarcastically and with great comedic timing: "Are we paying for this?" The entire audience cracked up. The commencement speaker was likely less amused but kindly never showed it.

It's perfectly acceptable for speakers to interject humor. The actor and comedian, Charlie Day, offered a great commencement speech at Merrimack College one year by being self-deprecating and quite funny. The remarks held their value because he used his humor to gain their attention.

In another speech, MSNBC anchor, Chris Matthews, delivered a remarkably effective graduation speech. Mr. Matthews implored graduating students to wake up the next day and "pound the pavement and knock on doors" to begin their professional lives. His theme: "Get in the game." The graduates still remind me of Mr. Matthew's speech.

For most presidents, commencement is perhaps the most enjoyable day in the academic calendar. The "surround" created - including the choice of commencement speaker - can play a critical role in creating the last memory that graduates have of their years on campus. It's worth putting some thought into how to make it meaningful.