Thanks to the COVID-19 panic this year, graduates at America’s institutions of higher education missed the “opportunity” to be lectured by some celebrity or politician about the importance of wanting a better world, or how racism is bad, or about how one should celebrate life.
Indeed, those who have no friends and nothing else to do could tune in to watch commencement speeches on these topics from academic and intellectual giants like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga.
The speeches made by politicians—who use them to push their own political agendas—are slightly more substantive, although no less opportunistic. Last year, for example—when graduation ceremonies were still conducted live—Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde used their commencement speeches at American universities to burnish their own careers, albeit their talks were punctuated with discussions of topics like the transatlantic partnership.
The speeches tend to be expensive affairs, as well. As the Chicago Tribune reported in 2016:
the University of Houston paid $35,000 to book retired astronaut Scott Kelly as the commencement speaker. Rutgers University paid $35,000 for journalist Bill Moyers, who spoke at one division’s ceremony after the schoolwide keynote speech from the unpaid President Barack Obama. Kean University in New Jersey paid $40,000 to each of its two speakers….
As many colleges struggle with tight budgets, some have drawn sharp criticism for paying hefty speaking fees. The University of Houston, which increased tuition this year, paid $166,000 to bring Matthew McConaughey to speak last spring, including $9,500 for his airfare. The University of Oklahoma paid $110,000 to book journalist Katie Couric in 2006. Both speakers donated their fees to charity, but their costs sparked a debate about whether colleges pay too much for pageantry.
The students, of course, are never consulted as to whether this is money well spent.
From the administration’s standpoint, the fact that these speeches serve no educational purpose whatsoever is immaterial. As I wrote back in 2014:
[T]he commencement speech is one of the more absurd traditions still maintained by higher education institutions today, and it has very little to do with providing an educational experience. Graduation ceremonies overall mostly exist to stroke the egos of the faculty members and give the institution itself a pat on the back while simultaneously attempting to convert the new alumni into donors. The speeches, we are told, are some sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear wisdom form the lips of politicians and perennial government employees like Condoleeza Rice and Christine Lagarde, who are in turn paid handsomely to lecture new graduates about “giving back” to the community, or being yourself, or following your dreams.
As with most everything that occurs at a university, the purpose of the commencement speech is not to provide a service to the students, but to make the institution’s faculty and staff feel important. If an institution can land a celebrity speaker (no matter how blood-soaked or morally bankrupt) to deliver the commencement speech, it will be great for the next fundraising campaign, and if the speaker says something really entertaining, insightful, or controversial, then it might even get the institution on the evening news. The commencement speech serves a public relations function, not an educational one.
This year’s commencement season brought with it the usual controversy, and several commencement speakers withdrew after some students protested. Among those who withdrew were Condoleeza Rice and Christine Lagarde. It turned out that some students failed to see how these politicians would dispense timeless life-lessons to the students, given their rather questionable careers spent in a variety of morally questionable pursuits.
Nonetheless, many students, pundits, and gullible parents still seem to be under the impression that graduate ceremonies are an important social institution. This is why we are told to be outraged every time there is some sort of “walkout” or other sign of disrespect directed at these well-paid and very powerful commencement speakers on occasion: “Why, these spoiled brats aren’t showing the proper respect to the rituals of our colleges and universities! These commencement speakers are all so very important and must be heeded!”
And so on.
It should be noted that most students who attend commencement ceremonies couldn’t care less who the celebrity speaker is. Most of them are there because they like the ritualistic aspects of it, and virtually no one remembers what is said at commencement speeches, in any case. If there is a vocal minority that manages to veto some speakers it is immaterial to the experience of nearly all students who will attend. Most students are really just waiting to get their prop diplomas (the real ones are mailed later) and go to brunch with their families.
Most students (i.e., paying customers) just want to “feel graduated” by going to these ceremonies, and that should be a tip to the faculty that speakers should be noncontroversial. But because these administrators want attention and influence, they often insist on bringing in controversial political figures and causing even more grief for their customers, as if four years of overpriced classes and social conditioning weren’t enough.
The fact that colleges and universities couldn’t care less about the people who pay the bills was reinforced all the more this year, when most universities shut down as a result of the COVID-19 panic. Most higher education institutions insisted on charging students full price even though “college” was reduced to a series of Zoom meetings and online assignments. Obviously that’s not what most students paid for. College administrators, of course, were adamant that the students keep paying through the nose for services not rendered.
Needless to say, students should not expect a discount for the fact that there were no commencement ceremonies this year. But the fact that we survived a year without them should serve as a reminder that we can easily get rid of the “tradition” of commencement speakers altogether. As Casey Cep explained in Politico in 2014, these speeches are “a tired ritual” and are usually on the intellectual level of something we might call “Chicken Soup for the Graduating Soul.” That’s a generous assessment. More often, these speeches exist to push the ruling class’s party line. There no intellectual enrichment going on.
Fortunately, some of the more intelligent university trustees have already done away with it altogether. Cep notes:
As Jason Song of The Los Angeles Times noticed, current Washington and Lee President Kenneth Ruscio explained in 2009: “The wise and fiscally prudent Board determined that in future years our graduates and families should rest easy knowing that if they had to endure a worthless Commencement address, it would at least be inexpensive,” meaning the president gives the only speech.
That is indeed wisdom in this era of bloated higher ed budgets, when millions are spent every year for grand, pompous ceremonies despite the discontentment of students and the fiscal crisis of higher education.