Back in March, when UCLA announced that 2008 graduate James Franco, star of the small screen and the large, would be its 2009 commencement speaker, many students were outraged—so outraged that the Facebook page "UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker" now has 621 members. Apparently some students at California's most selective state university felt they deserved better than Pineapple Express'second-most prominent stoner. Yet the same Inside Higher Ed article that noted the discontent on UCLA's campus also reported that vocal students in Virginia were mobilizing for an entertainer. Students at the University of Virginia were upset by the selection of eminent jurist J. Harvie Wilkinson III —they wanted mock-talk host Stephen Colbert.
These minor controversies are representative of a far greater concern. This year, almost 3 million students will graduate from an American college or university, and the majority of them will be forced to listen to a speech. This speech will constitute the last words a graduate hears before he or she tosses a mortarboard in the air, has lunch with the parents, parties one final night at the frat house, hooks up one final time with that sort-of significant other who may or may not also be interning at PriceWaterhouseCoopers this summer, and heads to Denny's at 5 a.m. These words may very well affect their decision to go for a Lumberjack Slam instead of a Moons Over My Hammy. So how best to choose a commencement speaker? A generational peer like James Franco? An éminence grise (and conservateur) like Wilkinson? Or, to put it more bluntly: celebrity or statesman?
Of course, most schools don't have this problem. The average graduate of the average state university will listen to a low-level state assemblyman, a generous alumnus who has hinted he'd like to give a talk, or, if the student is lucky, a beloved professor. It's only the schools with lots of students or lots of money who have the luxury of pickiness. So it's to them that I say, filled with the confidence of one whose commencement speaker was the Fonz: Go with the celebrity, whether it's a writer, rock star, athlete, or actor. But whatever you do, don't get a politician.
The only reasonable goal for a commencement speech is to help students and their families celebrate the day. Now, as one who takes oratory very seriously, I sympathize with those students and parents who want a speech that will consecrate or solemnify the occasion. I am afraid, however, that that's just too much to ask. Solemnity, gravity, awe—these emotions aren't automatically called forth even by the best of speeches. In fact, everything about a graduation exercise militates against dignity and reflection, instead promoting boredom or annoyance. If the weather is too hot or too rainy, if too many students are drunk or high, if the awarding of honorary degrees takes too long, if the black polyester gowns don't breathe well—then the profound words of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or New York Rep. Charles Rangel fail to work their usual magic.
What? You don't find Jindal and Rangel fascinating to listen to? Well, of course. Politicians are never likely to say anything unusual enough to be interesting. They are frequent commencement speakers in part because they can be counted on not to be meaningful. While most members of an audience prefer meaty, memorable speeches, no university president or trustee wants to deal with a minority of listeners who may be offended by a speaker's endorsement of stem cell research or decriminalizing marijuana. Occasionally, a politician's record can cause a scene on its own, as John McCain discovered at the New School in 2006 and Barack Obama may find this weekend at Notre Dame. But when speaking to a large cross-section of voters, politicians tend to defend their records in meaningless, self-aggrandizing—and thus noncontroversial—ways. Consider this gem, from Bill Clinton's 2007 speech at Middlebury College:
I do a lot of work in Africa … with my AIDS project. We sell medicine at the cheapest price in the world in 66 countries, and we have health projects in 25, and I never cease to be amazed by the intelligence of people with no money, no education, nothing, just lots of observation and received wisdom.
(See, his extraordinary good works have put him in touch with the wisdom of poor foreigners.)