Students at Northwestern Law School are upset at the administration’s choice of a speaker for this year’s graduation: Jerry Springer. The school points out that as a 1967 graduate, a former mayor of Cincinnati, and a star of television and opera, Springer should be able to offer valuable insights on law and government. Students counter that, in the final analysis, he’s still Jerry Springer.
The controversy raises the question of what commencement speakers are good for. Last year the outgoing president of George Washington University, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, announced that he himself would deliver GWU’s commencement address. Students were furious. The student newspaper complained:
The lack of an outside perspective gives GW the appearance of a bottom-tier institution uninterested in academic discovery or the enrichment of students. At an event that receives coverage by local and national media, the Commencement speaker makes a strong statement about the nature of the University and its ability to attract high-profile movers and shakers from academia, politics, business, science or even entertainment. . . .
Students feel cheated. While many may not be keen enough to appreciate the importance of a speaker not connected to the University, all realize that Trachtenberg is a speaker at Commencement each year, and that this year students will merely be receiving one speaker for the price of two. Additionally, plenty of confused students may be wondering why they paid a $100 graduation fee for such a lackluster event.
In the end, graduates were also treated to an address from Wolf Blitzer, who received an honorary degree, thus justifying the pricey Wolf tickets.
Students are getting mighty picky, aren’t they? At Columbia, my alma mater, the last three Class Day speakers have all come under criticism. This year it’s Joel Klein, who as chancellor of New York City’s public schools brought about great improvements in the education of millions of children. That cuts no ice with the students, whose general reaction on hearing his name was, “Who?” Last year it was John McCain, whose daughter was graduating; students worried that if they listened without protesting, people would assume they were Republicans. The year before, it was the actor Matthew Fox, class of 1989, best known for his work on the television series “Lost.” The general sense among fastidious Columbians was that he wasn’t quite famous enough for students to endure the humiliation of having a TV actor speak at Class Day.
All this amuses me, because in my day, more than a quarter-century ago, we would have considered ourselves wildly fortunate to get Al Molinaro from “Joanie Loves Chachi.” Instead we heard a modestly successful business executive tell us that when things get too much for us, we should go fishing. (“The purpose of a keynote Commencement speaker is to provide an outside voice that gives students their final bit of enlightenment before leaving the world of academia,“ wrote the GWU editorialist in 2007.) Choosing a commencement speaker is one of those occasions in life, like getting married, when you have to look in the mirror, size yourself up, and be brutally honest in answering the question: Is this the best I can do? In those days, Columbia was third-rate and we knew it. Now it’s improved greatly and can afford to be much more selective in choosing speakers, though evidently not as selective as its students would like.
(Truth be told, though, while Columbia has come up in the world, it still falls short of the top rung. You can tell this from the way the press has treated Barack Obama’s sociological observations on Pennsylvania’s working class. In the current issue of our print magazine, Fred Siegel writes: “Perhaps his remarks about bitter Pennsylvanians’ clinging to their guns have finally made visible the real man and his Harvard hauteur.” And Dean Barnett recently wrote in The Weekly Standard: “Anyone who has ever walked by Harvard Yard has heard the kind of condescending comments that Obama offered in San Francisco.” Obama got his bachelor’s degree from Columbia, but you never hear anyone say, “That guy went to Columbia–no wonder he’s such a snob!”).
In this area, I think Cornell University has the right approach: No honorary degrees and no commencement speaker except the university president. Who came up with the idea that graduation ceremonies were made for celeb-spotting? For most graduates, it’s something to wait through impatiently so you can go out and get drunk afterwards. If you’re looking for somebody who will give a memorable speech, Jerry Springer is a much better bet than some judge or physicist, and if you’re expecting to impress people years later with the name of your commencement speaker, you are doomed to a lifetime of disillusionment. On the other hand, though, perhaps the controversies are a hopeful sign: If commencement speakers are the biggest thing that students can find to complain about, the world must be in pretty good shape.