Good Riddance to Commencement Speakers

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MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABecause of their privileged status as subsidized institutions protected from the marketplace, colleges and universities are not sensitive to the desires or needs of their customers. In a normal, marketplace environment, higher education institutions would seek to provide services and offend as few customers as possible, while providing maximum value. The tired custom of commencement speeches, on the other hand, in which high-profile speakers with no particular academic expertise are purchased at great expense, is just the latest example of the disconnect between students and employees of these institutions.

Recent cases of protest against commencement speakers, who were deemed undesirable by some students, produced savage push-back from tenured faculty, administrators, and conservative pundits. The assertion on the part of  these parties was that the customers (the students) who objected to the activities of employees supported by student tuition (the faculty and administration) were necessarily spoiled brats who did not appreciate the wise decisions of their betters. The fact that it was immediately assumed that students should have no say in how their dollars are spent by their colleges exhibits how successful higher education institutions have been in convincing the general population that they are something more than the mere paid consultants and instructors that they are in fact.

Indeed, the commencement speech is one of the more absurd traditions still maintained by higher education institutions today, and it has very little to do with providing an educational experience. Graduation ceremonies overall  mostly exist to stroke the egos of the faculty members and give the institution itself a pat on the back while simultaneously attempting to convert the new alumni into donors. The speeches, we are told, are some sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear wisdom form the lips of politicians and perennial government employees like Condoleeza Rice and Christine Lagarde, who are in turn paid handsomely to lecture new graduates about “giving back” to the community, or being yourself, or following your dreams.

As with most everything that occurs as a university, the purpose of the commencement speech is not to provide a service to the students, but to make the institution’s faculty and staff feel important. If an institution can land a celebrity speaker (no matter how blood-soaked or morally bankrupt) to deliver the commencement speech, it will be great for the next fundraising campaign, and if the speaker says something really entertaining, insightful, or controversial, then it might even get the institution on the evening news. The commencement speech serves a public relations function, not an educational one.

This year’s commencement season brought with it the usual controversy, and several commencement speakers withdrew after some students protested. Among those who withdrew were Condoleeza Rice and Christine Lagarde.  It turned out that some students failed to see how these politicians would dispense timeless life-lessons to the students, given their rather questionable careers spent in a variety of morally questionable pursuits.

It should be noted that most students who attend commencement ceremonies couldn’t care less who the celebrity speaker is. Most of them are there because they like the ritualistic aspects of it, and virtually no one remembers what is said at commencement speeches in any case. The fact that there is a vocal minority that manages to veto some speakers is immaterial to the experience of nearly all students who will attend. Most students are really just waiting to get their prop diplomas (the real ones are mailed later) and go to brunch with their families.

But it’s a whole different ballgame for the faculty. Reinforcing the fact that commencement ceremonies exist not for the students but for the faculty, is the reaction of William Bowens.  Having grown fat and complacent on government grants and foundation dollars provided by the fabulously wealthy, Bowens lectured the student protesters for complaining about the selection of Robert Birgeneau, the government bureaucrat who sent police to pepper spray and beat non-violent protestors while Chancellor at the University of California. Student activists did not attempt to block Birgeneau’s speaking, but merely asked for a few words of regret from Birgenau about the way the non-violent students were treated. Birgenau refused.  For people like Bowens and Birgeneau, being a university administrator means never having to say you’re sorry.

Perhaps the most obnoxious aspect of the response to successful student protests is the passive-aggressive shrugging from pundits and administrators who act like commencement speeches offer an invaluable contribution to the “conversation” over a variety of issues. Representative of this is the response of Abby Phillip:

Will ousting Lagarde as Smith commencement speaker undo the perceived ills of the IMF? Probably not. But it all but ensures that Lagarde’s perspective won’t be represented at Smith on Sunday.

Oh yes, the poor, poor IMF. Without speeches at Smith, how will people like Legarde, who spends her days with the world’s most wealthy and powerful people, ever be able to get her message out?  And how would students ever know Legarde’s opinions about things? Aside from Googling her name, I mean.

The idea that withdrawal from a commencement speech in any way impacts the global debate over issues related to the IMF is unconvincing at best.

And let’s be crystal clear about this: none of the speakers  we’ve mentioned here withdrew because their invitations were revoked. They withdrew because they only wished to deliver a commencement speech on their terms. That is, they do not want to speak anywhere that they are not treated with adulation.

One student at Smith summed up the reality of these speakers’ motivations:

I do not agree with a base assumption that the Smith community’s dissent stifled Lagarde’s speech. It did not. She didn’t want to see or hear our disagreement, so she decided not to join the party. Her choice. She has access to muffled rooms that silence our analysis on a daily basis and has chosen not to leave them.

It is the speakers who have no interest in debate. The student protesters have only attempted to make their voices heard. But as is the usual wont of higher education faculty, the desires of the students, including those who have successfully completed their degrees apparently, are to be treated with contempt.

Let’s face it, the real reason the senior faculty are so enraged is because the student activism robbed them of an opportunity to attend a cocktail party with Lagarde or Rice in one of the university’s posh meeting rooms. “Debate” has virtually nothing to do with it.

As Casey Cep recently explained in Politico, the commencement speech is a tired and very expensive ritual, although some of the more intelligent university trustees have already done away with it altogether:

As Jason Song of The Los Angeles Times noticed, current Washington and Lee President Kenneth Ruscio explained in 2009: “The wise and fiscally prudent Board determined that in future years our graduates and families should rest easy knowing that if they had to endure a worthless Commencement address, it would at least be inexpensive,” meaning the president gives the only speech.

That is indeed wisdom in this era of the commencement-industrial complex, when millions are spent every year for grand, pompous ceremonies despite the discontent of students and the fiscal crisis of higher education. So let those already on the university payroll give the speeches if there are to be any: a better use of the exorbitant fees paid to speakers and security costs for their appearances ($700,000, for instance, in 2009 for First Lady Michelle Obama to speak at University of California, Merced) might very well be holding a raffle to award one lucky graduate with funds to repay the average $29,400 in student loans that they already have as a souvenir of their education.

12:03 pm on May 28, 2014