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Commencement Speech Disappoints Wake Forest Class of 2012

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By Old Gold & Black Editorial Staff

Commencement is a time for graduates to celebrate their achievements over their four undergraduate years, to reflect on their successes alongside their peers and look forward to the possibilities of the future. An essential part of this yearly tradition is the Commencement speech, typically delivered by an individual of some renown who imparts kernels of wisdom to the new graduates.

On May 21, Wake Forest's distinguished Class of 2012 received their diplomas. Yet, one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of Commencement -- the keynote speech - - was an embarrassment. In Ergen's own words, "Wow, just another CEO speech." Now, it is no secret that Wake Forest's Old Gold & Black has long expressed reservations about the choice of Charlie Ergen, this year's Commencement speaker ("Choice of Commencement Speaker prioritizes ties to business," April 5).

Despite our dissatisfaction with the choice of speaker, however, we were prepared to be open-minded, to look past the fact that Ergen represents the third CEO in a row to deliver the Commencement address. We hoped that we would be proven wrong, that Ergen would speak to the entire Class of 2012. We were wrong on all counts.

Our initial concern was that the choice of Ergen represented this administration's growing dedication to the Schools of Business at the cost of the liberal arts. We worried that Ergen's remarks would only resonate with those in the business school. It was worse than that. An ode to the hackneyed and trite, Ergen's entire address was targeted to one student -- his daughter, who is a member of the Class of 2012 -- addressing her exclusively throughout the speech. The Class of 2012 was an afterthought, meriting only a mention at the conclusion of the speech. These graduates deserved better than that.

His speech ignored the illustrious words of the great thinkers and scholars students have read during their four years at Wake and chose instead to focus on the esteemed wisdom of Dr. Seuss, Curious George, Matilda, and The Runaway Bunny. Not that there is no knowledge to be found in children's books -- we learned much from the late, great Maurice Sendak -- but a Commencement address is hardly the place for them. Where was the dedication to Pro Humanitate, Wake Forest's motto meaning "For Humanity?" Where was the emphasis on the liberal arts that defines this university (or used to, anyway)?

In order to underscore our disappointment, we have compiled key passages from Ergen's speech below and compared them with those from past Wake Commencement speakers. The discrepancies are disheartening.

We can do better than this. We can be better than this. The university deserves reassurance from its President, Nathan O. Hatch, that this won't happen again. We therefore call upon President Hatch to directly involve students, faculty, and administrators from all areas in determining next year's graduation speaker. We call upon President Hatch to clearly outline by the time students return in August how that speaker will be chosen next year. Our graduates work extraordinarily hard for four years to be able to walk across that stage at Commencement. At the very least, they deserve a speech addressed to them, at an intellectual level worthy of a top university.

Comparisons between Ergen and previous Wake Commencement speakers:

Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2004: "You've been taught to work for goals that transcend the individual: service to community, service to country, service to mankind. Your motto, "Pro Humanitate," says it all. Never forget it. And never forget the obligation those two words place upon each and every one of you and place upon your heart."

Ergen, 2012: "Kerry, I am very proud of you today, and I hope that you know that you will always be my little bunny and that you will always have a place to come home to. Congratulations to you all for a job well done."

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Vice President Joe Biden, 2009: "William Butler Yeats was right...There's a great line in one of Yeats' poems about the first rising in Ireland. It's called Easter Sunday, 1916. And the line is more applicable to your generation than it was to his Ireland in 1960. And he said: All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born. When I graduated, all had not changed utterly yet. Today, it has. And in the last 12 to 15 years, a terrible beauty has been born. It's a different world out there than it has been any time in the last millennia. But we have an opportunity to make it beautiful, because it is in motion."

Ergen, 2012: "He [The Cat in the Hat] says, 'Young cat, keep your eyes open enough, oh the stuff you will learn, the most wonderful stuff.' And then later on, 'the more that you read, the more things you will know, the more that you learn, the more places you will go.' Without question, that is the single best piece of advice I can give you today. "

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New York Times columnist David Brooks, 2007: "Create a posse of dead people. Create an entourage of heroes. Put their pictures on your wall, and keep them in your mind. They will remind you of your place in the hidden river of wisdom. They'll serve as models. They'll give you an honest perspective on how you're doing. They'll remind you that your blessings don't come from you but from those who came before you."

Ergen, 2012: "I'm pleased today just to thank Dr. Bern Beatty, who was one of my professors and my mentor back in 1976 and still teaching...And I'm very proud that the University will honor Dr. Beatty with a new business school atrium named in his honor."

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Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., 2008: "I am calling upon you to be the generation that transforms charity into justice, cynicism into hope, division into dialogue, selfishness into generosity, impatience with politicians into a belief in the possibilities of politics and public life."

Ergen, 2012: "So, let's sum it up. Never stop learning. Be curious. Try new things. Get really good at something and have the nerve to go the whole hog. Kerry, these are the lessons we learned as we grew up. Thank you for letting me remind you of them today.­­"

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The full text of Ergen's speech is available here.