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Commencement Speakers: Sparking Debate and Discussion on College Campuses

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For students, college graduation marks a time at which, with diploma in hand, you walk off the stage and look forward to the next phase of life.

Often, colleges shed light on the important nature of graduation with the invitation of a keynote commencement speaker. It's a process that even extends to the President of the United States, as the White House announced last month that in May, President Obama will be speaking at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, The Ohio State University in Columbus and Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black school in Atlanta.

That being said, the selection of certain commencement speakers has sparked controversy at colleges and universities throughout the past. (Just Google "commencement speaker controversies" and you'll see what I mean.)

Last semester in my school's newspaper, I looked at some of the debates that have taken place over commencement speakers at Emory University specifically. But nationwide, schools sometimes encounter protests and dialogue following announcements of specific individuals making an appearance on campus. In some cases, attention shifts away from the celebration of the end of college, with the spotlight instead landing on figures that some students deem unfit to address them.

Indeed, The Washington Post highlighted conflicts that have taken place over commencement speakers at different colleges in the past few years. In 2009, James Franco was supposed to speak at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). But he instantly faced backlash from members of the UCLA community.

The editorial board of The Daily Bruin, UCLA's student newspaper, wrote in a staff editorial, "A commencement speaker does not have to be a Nobel Prize winner or a rocket scientist, but a guest speaker should have the life experiences that come with age."

But even those with "life experiences" have the potential to spark controversy. Last year at Emory, it was announced that Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, would be speaking at commencement. Carson was the first in his field to separate conjoined twins but all the while doesn't believe in evolution.

Shortly after the commencement speaker announcement, nearly 500 professors, students and alumni signed an open letter expressing their disagreement with Carson's views. While the letter did not call for Carson to be disinvited, it aimed to shed light on an alternate perspective.

"As ... students, their families, and the Emory Community listen to [Carson's] speech," the letter states, "we ask you to also consider the enormous positive impact of science on our lives and how that science rests squarely on the shoulders of evolution."

Obama himself has also had his critics. Arizona State University announced in April 2009 that it wouldn't grant Obama an honorary degree -- which at many colleges has become a tradition for graduation speakers -- because he didn't yet have the life experience needed to receive the honor. That same year, Catholics at Notre Dame University who oppose abortion protested his presence, too.

Students at Columbia last year additionally expressed disappointment that Obama chose to speak across the street at Barnard instead of at his own alma mater.

And Gary Hauk, Emory's vice president and deputy to the president, told me last semester that even the Dalai Lama, who spoke at the school in 1998, "had [his] detractors." When Mikhail Gorbachev spoke at Emory in 1992, some students also worried that the focus on the required amount of security would take the focus away from the ceremony itself.

The Huffington Post similarly lists "the most controversial graduation speakers," one of whom includes Barbara Bush. Back in 1990, Wellesley College selected her to speak at commencement, but this choice instantly sparked student protests, with many saying she "did not embody the type of woman the college aims to educate," the Huffington Post reported.

Usually, there are no specific criteria that an individual must satisfy to be named a commencement speaker. In several cases, conflicts surround a speaker's specific accomplishments and how known he or she is among the student body.

However, rather than rallies and protests, commencement speaker choices could instead serve as a foundation for civil discussion, as has been in the case at a few locations in the past.

Often, it's a question of whether the person speaking or the content of the speech itself is more important. That's not to say that a famous person can't deliver a great speech. But it also doesn't mean the opposite wouldn't be just as memorable.

An individual who some may see as unqualified to deliver a graduation speech might still provide you with advice that can last you throughout a lifetime. After all, it usually takes hard work and dedication to receive such an invitation in the first place.

Perhaps it's time to ponder: what, exactly, are our priorities in selecting somebody to speak at commencement, and where should our focuses lie?

There may not necessarily be a "right" answer to these questions, but it's something to think about as you receive your diploma in your journey toward independence.