It's that time of year. Students from coast to coast will soon be receiving their degrees and taking their first steps out into the world as adults. There's been a lot of work, study and now the reward of accomplishment. Over the years, more and more attention has been paid to the person chosen to deliver the commencement address.
In this hyper-political, hyper-partisan environment, it's customary to hear the complaints levied at the multitude of commencement speaker selections. But, every once-in-a-while, you get instead complaints of a slightly different nature.
Take Howard University 2014 for example.
On May 10, Sean Combs is scheduled to salute the class of 2014. Some call him "Diddy/P. Diddy" others "Puff Daddy" and others more snidely call him "dropout."
Combs, finished about two years of study at Howard before opting to drop out and pursue his dreams of music industry success, as the understudy of then-MCA executive Andre Harrell.
The debate surrounding Combs' selection is a classic one, full of gray nuances, not merely an easy black and white discussion as many would suggest. The black and white discussion only has two arguments. On one side, detractors oversimplify the critique and suggest that college dropouts are not suited to give commencement addresses at the school in which s/he previously dropped out, or any university for that matter. It would be the wrong message for the university to send.
Yes and no.
To exclude Sean Combs on those grounds would have also excluded Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, just for starters.
This conversation is full of gray... not black and white.
And on the other side, supporters quickly offer up names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and even Alicia Keys as examples of college dropouts worthy of emulation.
Yes and no.
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates forever changed the world. Sean Combs temporarily changed R&B music over the course of 15 years through the tools of misogyny and all things antithetical to educational attainments. Let's keep this in its proper perspective and not make false equivocations.
Howard University, like the other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) was created expressly as an avenue to educate Africans and African Americans when we were not allowed or welcome at mainstream institutions due to slavery, segregation or just good ol' fashion racial exclusion. Even presently, when the cost and selection processes make a private education seemingly unreachable, the HBCUs still continue to provide an avenue for the brightest minds (both Black and non-Black) to pursue higher education.
In the assessment of whether Sean Combs is appropriate to address the Howard University graduates of 2014, his intended message is key. The list is long of those successful African Americans who did not complete college. The list is also long of successful African Americans who did not complete college yet have received honorary degrees, including Mike Tyson.
This is less about precedent yet everything to do with prudence.
Conversely, not all college dropouts are created equal and never should they be cast as such. Although Combs may share that similar distinction with Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg and Keys (and even Rosa Parks), it is ignorant to suggest that mere attainment of wealth is either worthy of emulation or qualifies one to address seekers of higher education during commencement.
To equate Gates and Jobs with Combs is to disregard the importance of accountability in wealth creation. Also, Jobs and Gates, though not college graduates, often spoke on the value of formal education.
"I'm a very big believer in equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcome. Equal opportunity to me, more than anything, means a great education. Maybe even more important than a great family life. We could make sure that every young child in this country got a great education. We fall far short of that." -- Steve Jobs
"I'd like the people teaching my kids to be good enough that they could get a job at the company I work for, making a hundred thousand dollars a year. Why should they work at a school for thirty-five to forty thousand dollars if they could get a job here at a hundred thousand dollars a year?" -- Steve Jobs
Clearly Jobs was not advocating for his OWN kids to drop out of school and also wanted his children to be taught by those with the requisite skills, training AND education.
"Education is the one issue that's key to America's future." -- Bill Gates
But beyond expressing the importance of education in their general commentaries, Jobs and Gates specifically don't have any of their money tied to calling Black women b******, h*** or black men N****. Accountability matters in the assessment of "successful" careers. Otherwise, notorious DC druglord Rayful Edmond is equally suitable as a potential commencement speaker.
Although not a deal-breaker, Combs' history is still relevant in the sense of the message it sends to those unable to actually hear him May 10. There are more reasons to give pause and maybe even the side-eye to Combs' appearance than to applaud the selection.
There is an undeniable correlation between the lack of education and the numbers of black men in prison. There is a reason that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are the exception and the millions of other dropouts who have struggled mightily are the general rule. There is a reason why we can name Gates and Jobs on one hand and don't have enough hours in the day to list all the other dropouts who can neither find a job nor effectively vie for success in today's world.
Show me 100 college graduates randomly selected from any university and compare them to 100 dropouts... come back and tell me what your results yield.
Before you do, know the following:
There are no college dropout doctors, lawyers, accountants or teachers. There is no great proliferation of dropout engineers, scientists, et al. Although there are individual examples of success outside the boundaries, there are no examples of an under-educated and successful community or society. There is not enough space here to recite all of the studies linking lacking education and generational poverty.
Howard University and all HBCUs particularly, should be in the business of promoting education first and foremost; in accordance to their mission. Whereas the selection of Combs is not categorically offensive or decidedly inappropriate; it is highly questionable and only can be justified by an appropriate message on May 10 and beyond by Combs. Trumpeting the value of education on May 10th and simply returning to the business as usual of b*****, N***** and Ciroc Vodka May 11th would be a huge failure on the part of Howard University.
College is not and has never been the sole determinant of success. Yet in this competition we call capitalism, education is absolutely one of the largest variables in the equation. The numbers are inarguable. There are more successful doctors in the state of California alone than there are successful rappers, music producers and NBA players combined. Not to mention, most have longer careers. There are fewer college graduates by percentage in mainstream America ending up broke after making a million dollars than there are professional athletes ending up broke after the same.
My message is simple. It's possible for anyone to hit a home run, but an education gives you more swings and more outs in the game.
Sean Combs may have hit a home run financially after dropping out, but to elevate and celebrate it without juxtaposing it with the higher percentage of strike outs does college students a tremendous disserve.
Howard University doesn't need anyone suggesting to its majority African-American graduates that everyone can be a multi-millionaire rap music producer or that it's admirable to make hundreds of millions defiling and debasing those in your own community. Howard University doesn't need to hitch its wagon to the star of someone who saw little use for its education then (or now presumably) and indict its own express purpose of educating America's youth.
Howard University needs to be exceptionally clear and consistent that it is fully invested in the business of education. Throwing an honorary doctorate at Sean Combs (after receiving a check from him) clouds the issue when clarity is needed the most.
Morris W. O'Kelly (Mo'Kelly) is host of "The Mo'Kelly Show" on KFI AM640. The Mo'Kelly Report is a syndicated politics and entertainment journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and all commentary is welcome.