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The Death of the Graduation Speech?

06/06/2014 10:36 am ET | Updated Aug 06, 2014
Digital Vision. via Getty Images

How A-list commencement speakers have become a deeply divisive force -- and how we can fix it

Odds are that if you're ever invited to speak at a college or high school commencement ceremony, you might be the last man, woman or Muppet standing.

Yep, Kermit spoke to the graduates of Southampton College once.

These days if you're tabbed to speak, you've probably never voted, taken a stand or said anything of consequence. You don't do social media. You've never called into a radio talk show. And you don't have a vanity plate, a bumper sticker or a single sassy-T-shirt.

OK, that's an exaggeration. But a growing number of A-list graduation speakers -- politicians, political impersonators (aka, actors) and pop culture purveyors -- are being uninvited after even the most tepid of student protests.

The likes of Ann Coulter and Condoleeza Rice have walked away -- or been asked to walk away. First Lady Michelle Obama changed her plans to speak for a Topeka, KS high school graduation on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education after parents complained that, with the high-profile appearance, there wouldn't be enough seating for Great Aunt Edna. Now she's speaking at "Senior Recognition Day," which sounds suspiciously like Senior Skip Day. Hubby Barack was able to deliver his talk at Notre Dame, but did so against the backdrop of anti-abortion protesters.

Those who survive the gauntlet of pundits dispensing faux outrage, self-loathing Internet trolls, and spineless administrations and graduation committees often don't do their peers any favors -- incessantly pushing hot button issues and shoveling self-serving agendas onto the podium.

Before everyone got so uptight and sensitive about what was supposed to be a celebration of opportunity, netting stud graduation speakers used to be a bragging rights battle among upper echelon schools and a bit of a star-struck send-off for the grads. Now it's a broken cycle that needs to be fixed. Otherwise, we might as well have someone read 50 graduation Hallmark cards into an auto-tuned microphone.

Here are three suggestions for fixing the problem:

Let the students decide. Sure, in many schools, students have a voice in selecting a commencement speaker. But why not charge them with running everything -- the selection, outreach, fallout -- even the parking and seating logistics. If they work hard, they can get Bill Gates, Bill Murray or Bill Cosby. If they slack off, they get Bill Bellamy. In the same way that many student publications operate independently of a university -- save the occasional check or balance to prevent a "holy sh*t" scenario -- this scenario allows trustees and presidents to sidestep any flare-ups.

Go foreign. It's not that politics are the problem; it's American politics that are so damn polarizing. Sure, Putin may not be a decent choice for a few decades, but you have all the countries on the Risk board to choose from. Plus, now those super-pretentious schools have a way to incorporate subtitles into commencement. Hey, does anyone know if Michael Moore moved to Canada yet?

Nix it all. Students work four years to be talked down to from some detached celebrity who also walks out with an honorary degree and courtside basketball tickets for life. What about, you know, the students? By removing the star-studded spectacle from commencement, the focus falls back where it belongs.

Some schools still do it right. Howard University invited millionaire college dropout P. Diddy to speak at its commencement. Holy Cross tabbed "Swingers" star and Jon Favreau. And Middlebury hosted Diana Nyad, the first person to stroke it from Cuba to Florida.
But that's the exception, not the rule. Our grads deserve better, so let's fix the problem today. Good luck, graduates.