The Contrarian Approach to Commencement: Why I'm Giving the Speech

Commencement can be a touchy subject. Planning a college commencement ceremony is something like planning a wedding: it is a deeply personal milestone played out before an audience of friends and family, and there is just one chance to "get it right." Expectations are high, the stakes higher, and the stakeholders are many. Yet I would suggest that in the well-intentioned effort to meet these high expectations, colleges and universities may be doing their graduates a disservice. Consider the choice that is often the most difficult, the most debated and potentially the most polarizing in the quest for the perfect event: the commencement speaker.

In the two years since I became president of Gordon College, I have thought quite a lot about how Gordon celebrates commencement--and, just as importantly, why. I keep coming back to "why." Whose purpose should we be serving? Certainly, there are institutional benefits to incorporating a high-profile speaker into an institution's commencement ceremonies; it can add cachet to a major campus event, and, if we're lucky, a speaker may offer a rich, memorable message to the graduating class. But at what cost? Especially for smaller institutions, star power may not be our wisest institutional investment.

There are several clear issues with the "big-name speaker" approach. The first is fiscal. Honorariums for marquee commencement speakers range from a few thousand dollars to $100,000. Especially in our current economic climate, this should give us pause. A smaller liberal arts institution may find it hard to make the case that securing a top-tier commencement speaker is the best way to steward the school's resources. That's one conclusion I reached early on as I began looking for a suitable presenter, and I imagine the same could be said for institutions around the country.

The second concern is more amorphous but just as significant. Rightly or wrongly, a school's choice of commencement speaker tends to be interpreted as a reflection of the values that institution represents. The selection becomes the message. Here's the risk: it is rare for a person to become notable without some notoriety, whether for holding at least one controversial opinion or belief, or by virtue of the individual's occupation or organization. You can be certain that some within your community will take note, and take umbrage. The ensuing debate often overshadows and undermines the intent of the celebration. We need only remember the heated debates surrounding President Barack Obama's invitation to speak at Notre Dame's commencement in 2009, or President George W. Bush's invitation to Calvin College in 2005. A high-profile speaker can cause as much angst as excitement. How does that serve the graduating students?

Commencement should be a day to commemorate and elevate the tremendous accomplishments of our graduating students, in a proud celebration with their families and their faculty mentors. The very real possibility that the most meaningful moments of this day might be overshadowed by a marquee guest should be reason enough to reconsider the merits of this approach.

This is why for the foreseeable future, I--or someone already within our community--will deliver the commencement address at Gordon College. This runs contrary to many people's expectations. However, it is not a new concept, and I know from my own experience in higher education that the words of a school's leader can be even more meaningful to that community than those of even a genuinely distinguished guest. At Princeton University, where I earned my doctorate, the president traditionally speaks at commencement. Virginia Tech has a similar tradition: each president speaks at least once, and many do so several times. An institutional leader can speak to a graduating class with understanding and specificity that "generic" speeches cannot achieve. Last May, Gordon's President Emeritus Jud Carlberg, who had retired the year before, addressed Gordon's graduates and their families at commencement. His words, informed by a long, fruitful tenure at Gordon and a deep care for our community, imbued the ceremony with meaning that no visiting speaker could have matched.

Perhaps we should step back and reexamine our criteria for commencement success. I believe forgoing a famous external speaker makes it possible to celebrate the day more fully, because it keeps the focus where it belongs--on the joy of our graduates' accomplishment, on sharing that joy with friends and loved ones, and on the bright hope for their future.