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The Silly Season: The Fuss Over Graduation Speakers

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It's graduation time. The Silly Season has arrived again.

Protesters are claiming scalps, forcing the cancellation of big-name speakers. Condoleeza Rice, former secretary of state, withdrew from speaking at Rutgers commencement in the face of student protest over her role in the Bush administration. Brandeis withdrew its offer to former Dutch legislator Ayaan Hirsi, a vocal critic of Islam. Smith College has just had Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, withdraw as a speaker because a student group objects.

It's not only left-wing groups that are shutting down speakers. In the past, right-wing groups have nixed invitations to the likes of '60s activist Bill Ayers and gay playwright Tony Kushner. Last year, catholic Providence College withdrew an invitation to John Corvino, a writer and advocate of gay rights.

The thing is: It just doesn't matter, because the students who might be corrupted by these dangerous voices don't listen anyway. I know. I've been there as a graduation speaker and as a recruiter of graduation speakers.

At my graduation from Culver City High School, I gave the valedictory speech. I selected as my theme "Are We Our Brothers Keepers?," and spoke gravely about the case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death in New York City. Neighbors heard her screams from their apartment windows, but no one rushed to her aid. Eyes glazed over. My classmates and their parents hardly registered a word I spoke. It was a time of celebration -- not a time to consider great philosophical issues, moral duties, or how to make the world a better place.

At Occidental College, where I work, I have recruited prominent figures to speak at graduation. One year, I brought Jorge Castaneda, the foreign minister of Mexico. Another year, we had Noor, the Queen of Jordan, and a few years ago, it was Samantha Power, a national security adviser to President Obama and now US ambassador to the UN. The president and the trustees were pleased. A famous person was coming to speak at graduation. The students and their parents couldn't care less. I couldn't find a single student then or now who remembers what any of the speakers said. They vaguely remember that someone "important" showed up. My best choice was Jackson Browne, to whom we gave an honorary degree the same year that Noor spoke, but stupidly, we didn't have him sing.

Academic leaders fret all year long about attracting Big Name speakers for graduation. It's a silly, competitive game, with no purpose other than to show off. It's about institutional prestige, not putting on a celebration for the graduates.

I will concede that there can be amusing graduation speeches. Kurt Vonnegut gave a few, including his famous admonition to always remember to floss (his advice to graduates is collected in If This Isn't Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young--the Graduation Speeches), but Vonnegut is the exception that proves the rule. My favorite graduation speaker is a professor who spoke at my children's arts and sciences high school. His glasses kept falling off, he dropped his notes, and then tripped trying to retrieve them. The audience looked embarrassed for him, then finally began to laugh. He was an actor, a parent of a graduate, pretending to be a graduation speaker. Graduation should be a time of fun and celebration, not a time for deep thought or gratuitous advice from an older generation.

The best graduation event I ever spoke at was at a leading business school in Finland when I served as US ambassador. I was the first non-Finn to be invited to address the graduates of the elite school, and I had prepared serious remarks about the future of the world and their role in it. On the way to the event, I finally read my staff notes which indicated that instead of an address, I would be called to stand on a table and be funny. It was Improv Time.

After the meal and many glasses of Champagne, a chant began: "We want Derek to the table, we want Derek to the table." I was hauled up on to the central dining table, along with my student host, a comely blonde graduate. I told a few on-the-spot jokes about America and Finland, and then congratulated the graduates by saying that while I could not kiss all of them, I would certainly kiss my dinner partner, the blonde MBA student on the table with me. I did (there is a picture to prove it which appeared in the local press). A cheer rang up in the hall. It was my most successful graduation speech.

The ambassadude's iron rule for graduation speakers: sing, recite poetry, tell jokes, dance on tables -- never talk about world peace.