Obama and the college speaker game


Story highlights

Nicolaus Mills: Barnard wins commencement prize with Obama, to Columbia's dismay

Mills: Women's college Barnard is the perfect stage for Obama to speak on women's rights

Universities are democratic, he says, so students should have a say in who speaks

Milles: Gen. Marshall gave the most important commencement address in U.S. history

Editor’s Note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of “Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.”

CNN —  

The winner of the 2012 commencement sweepstakes is in. It’s Barnard College, which just announced that President Obama will be the featured speaker at its May 14 graduation ceremonies.

The choice benefits both the president and Barnard, a 123-year-old women’s college in New York City. Barnard outdoes neighboring Columbia and every other Ivy League college when it comes to commencement prestige. Obama, in turn, gets the perfect setting to talk about women’s rights.

The Republicans have made a national issue of limiting access to contraception, and Barnard provides the president with a forum to make his views on the subject clear. This comes at a time when the Guttmacher Institute reports that of the 43 million fertile American women who do not want to get pregnant, 89% are practicing birth control.

In the Columbia Spectator college paper, the president’s commencement address was the lead story Monday and a source of controversy and envy. Barnard students often take classes at Columbia, which actually confers the Barnard diplomas. Obama clearly trumps Columbia’s commencement speaker, John R. MacArthur, the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine.

Nicolaus Mills
Courtesy Sarah Lawrence College
Nicolaus Mills

But Barnard’s coup in securing the president, whose aides contacted Barnard last week, according to university President Debora L. Spar, raises an important question: How do colleges choose their commencement speakers?

At institutions that pride themselves on being democratic, the process all too rarely involves meaningful consultation. Sometimes, students are asked whom they want for a speaker. Occasionally, faculty members are solicited for their opinion. But the asking around is most often window dressing.

Usually, the commencement speaker is chosen by a college president or key administrator. In Barnard’s case, Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, was the announced speaker. But when Obama became available, Abramson was quickly dropped. As critics have noted, so much for a women’s college worrying about favoring a powerful man over a woman!

In an age when budgets are stretched thin, many colleges are still willing to pay thousands of dollars to get the most newsworthy person they can find to address their graduating seniors. A famous commencement speaker is an expense that colleges believe will pay dividends down the line.

Perhaps colleges are right? Maybe the commencement game is worth playing to the hilt. But I think it is equally possible that colleges are kidding themselves. My alternative is that colleges should try choosing their commencement speakers according to the following rules:

1. Ask the senior class whom it wants to hear at its graduation, and publish the results early in the fall.

2. Make sure the seniors know who is available to speak.

3. Require the commencement speaker to donate any lecture fees to the college scholarship fund and not profit from an invitation that should be considered an educational honor.

4. Insist that the speakers talk no longer than 15 minutes and never use the phrase “real world.”

5. Strongly urge the speaker to recall what the world felt like when he or she was 22.

These five rules should do the trick, but it is important to remember that there are always exceptions. The wise college won’t try to control every facet of commencement. It will allow for surprises.

The most important commencement address in modern American history occurred June 5, 1947, at Harvard, when Secretary of State and former Army Chief of Staff George Marshall delivered the talk that became the basis for the Marshall Plan. Nobody anticipated how momentous Marshall’s address would be. He spoke for just 12 minutes, and all he said to Harvard President James Conant in advance was that he intended “to make a few remarks in appreciation of the honor and perhaps a little more.”

My ideal commencement speaker for 2012, as I have told anyone who will listen, would be Little Richard, who turns 80 in December. Little Richard is, I believe, our greatest living rock ’n’ roller, and one rendition of “Tutti Frutti” by him would make even the most humdrum commencement magical.

But few of the students I teach would agree with me about Little Richard, and I am easy about bowing to their wishes. Commencement is, it cannot be stressed enough, their day: It should be about who and what they think is important.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.