The non-crisis of obscure grad speakers

April 16, 2009

GW’s got Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; Stanford’s got Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. NYU will host Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Franklin & Marshall is planning to welcome former Secretary of State Colin Powell. And Arizona State University even managed to net President Barack Obama, despite its absurd refusal to grant him an honorary degree.
Meanwhile, we Georgetown students are still waiting to hear who will speak at the Commencements for each of the undergraduate schools this May, and if the last few years are any indication, the speakers addressing the Class of 2009 won’t have nearly the same A-list cred.
Sure, it’s a little strange that the most prestigious university in the nation’s capital consistently books such low-profile graduation speakers, especially since, contrary to popular belief, it’s not our relatively paltry endowment holding us back. If the choice were between a famous speaker and more financial aid—or better technology services, or fresh mozzarella wraps twice a week instead of once—I would be willing to let it go. But Emanuel isn’t being paid to speak at GW, and Obama’s fee for the ASU speech is $0. If other schools can get such high-profile speakers for free, why can’t we?
Probably because, even if a famous speaker doesn’t carry at actual price tag, it takes a certain amount of time and flattery on the part of University administrators, time that could be better spent recruiting a new dean for the School of Foreign Service (or for that matter, a couple of new basketball players), or any number of other important tasks.
And of course, it’s not like graduation is our only opportunity to hear a cool speech. After all, Georgetown is showered with great speakers during the year—the Class of ’09 has had the opportunity to see Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan on campus, and of course, Obama just spoke here this week. Moreover, our academic year speeches are almost certainly more substantive than the platitudinous talks that many graduation speakers deliver. The days of then-President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1963 Commencement speech at American University, in which he somberly proposed a serious re-evaluation of the United States’ attitude toward the Soviet Union, are long gone. Even Obama’s speech at Wesleyan last year, when he filled in for hospitalized Senator Ted Kennedy, was more “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” than State of the Union.
A shared high-profile graduation speech that we could all reminisce about for years to come would be a nice thing to have, but in all seriousness, a name-brand graduation speaker should be the least of our worries. This year’s seniors are looking for jobs in the worst economy in decades. Graduate schools are seeing a major uptick in applications because of the disastrous job market. Even if you manage to get a job or a grad school acceptance letter, the days of waking up moments before your 11:40 class or watching nine episodes of The Office in a row on a Monday night are probably over. With the President talking about America falling behind the rest of the world in the quantity and quality of our college graduates, we’ve been lucky enough to do pretty well for ourselves, and the Commencement ceremony itself isn’t that big a deal.
Last but not least, we shouldn’t forget that even people who aren’t boldface names can deliver interesting, inspiring talks. Hopefully that will be the case at this year’s Commencement ceremonies. So seniors, when you’re burning up in that black gown on Healy Lawn, try to pay attention and appreciate the speech, without worrying about the speaker’s prestige (or lack thereof). As Baz Luhrmann told the Class of ’99, “Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead. Sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”
Or with your high school frenemy who goes to NYU. I wonder what Ban Ki-moon is up to on May 16.

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Matthew Smith

Well said, Anna.

For a long time, I was in the “we should try to get the most famous person we can” camp. But not any more.

Not everyone who has something worthwhile to say is famous. And what’s more, there are lots of famous people who don’t speak well at all *cough* (President Bush) *cough*. We want someone who has something to say worth hearing, and who can state it in a compelling, stimulating, meaningful way: neither of these things require fame.

Moreover, I think that in the case of a commencement speech, fame may well be a detriment: someone with a public image to keep up is going to be concerned about not offending anyone, and possibly as a result less likely to go out on a limb and say what they really believe. By inviting a less well-known speaker, we are perhaps putting ourselves in line for a more sincere speech.

Let other schools worry about getting the flashy names. I’m confident that we’ll get someone actually worth hearing.

Having said that, I too would love to see Mr. Ban on the 16th.