Subdued Beginnings

For the second year in a row, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The focus of college commencements in North Carolina in 2011 has been on the kids, not on the flamboyance, notoriety, or political passions of the speakers who launch them into the post-academic world. Whether you chalk it up to the somber state of the economy or to the changeover to conservative political control in the state, the selection of commencement speakers this season was “fair and balanced” when viewed as a whole. (Scroll down to see the list.)

Looking over the choices at the 54 four-year colleges and universities listed below (some schools do not have outside speakers, or even formal commencement lectures), I was struck by the number affiliated with the armed services.  Specifically, they are: Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (East Carolina); Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff (Elon); Navy Commander Porter Halyburton  (Ret.), a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam (Greensboro College); Sally Brice-O’Hara, U. S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral (Meredith); and Major General Ronald L. Bailey, Commanding General of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot/Western Recruiting Region (St. Augustine’s).

Perhaps the most famous speakers were E.O. Wilson, biologist extraordinaire, at UNC-Chapel Hill; cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong at High Point; Nelson Mandela’s widow, Nomzamo Nobandla Winnifred Madikizela-Mandela, at Johnson C. Smith; and education secretary Arne Duncan at Fayetteville State.

Fame is an elastic term, and others in the list below can claim it, too. From political figures to business executives, plenty of people had the knowledge and experience to inspire the class of 2011. And the members of that class will need inspiration, as they enter a sluggish economy with a highly uncertain trajectory.

Editor’s note: Jenna Ashley Robinson, Ashley Russell, and Duke Cheston contributed to this report.

Commencement Speakers in North Carolina

Spring 2011

  • Appalachian State University: Dee Freeman, an alumnus of the school and Secretary of the N.C Department of Environment and Natural Resources
  • Barton College: Dan Gerlach, President of the Golden LEAF Foundation
  • Belmont Abbey College: No outside speaker
  • Bennett College for Women: Elaine Jones, former President, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
  • Brevard College: Members of the graduating class
  • Cabarrus College of Health Sciences: Not available
  • Campbell University: Dr. Barbara E. Walker, distinguished physician and member of the American Osteopathic Association
  • Catawba College: D.G. Martin, retired politician and host of “North Carolina Bookwatch” on UNC-TV
  • Chowan University: University students and trustees
  • Davidson College: John Kuykendall, President, Davidson College
  • Duke University: John Chambers, CEO and Chairman of Cisco Systems
  • East Carolina University: Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy
  • Elon University: Joan Higginbotham, former NASA astronaut
  • Fayetteville State University: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
  • Gardner-Webb: Michael Anthony ‘72, state representative, South Carolina General Assembly
  • Greensboro College: Former P.O.W. Navy Cmdr. Porter Halyburton (Ret.)
  • Guilford College: Wildlife biologist Susanna Paisley
  • High Point University: Cyclist Lance Armstrong
  • Johnson & Wales: Julia Stewart, President and CEO, DineEquity Inc, and
    ‪Eric Danziger, President and CEO, Wyndham Hotel Group‬
  • Johnson C. Smith University: Nomzamo Nobandla Winnifred “Winnie” Madikizela-Mandela, South African activist
  • Lees-McCrae College: Dr. Houck Medford, Founder and CEO emeritus of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation
  • Lenoir-Rhyne College: Members of the graduating class
  • Livingstone College: Joe Scantlebury,  Senior Program Office, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. Program Advocacy Division
  • Mars Hill College: Members of the graduating class
  • Meredith College: Sally Brice-O’Hara, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral
  • Methodist University: Holly Petraeus, Leader of the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  • Mid-Atlantic Christian University: George Powell ’77, founder, Abundant Life Church, Clackamas, Oregon
  • Montreat College: Stephen P. Miller, Executive Vice President, the Biltmore Company
  • Mount Olive College: Dr. Kay Hall Albertson, President, Wayne Community College
  • North Carolina A&T State University: Dr. Randal Pinkett, President and CEO, BCT Partners
  • North Carolina Central University: U.S. Representative John Lewis
  • North Carolina State University: James E. Rogers, Chairman, President, and CEO, Duke Energy
  • North Carolina Wesleyan College: Senator Richard Burr (R-NC)
  • Peace College: N.C. Representative Deborah K. Ross (D)
  • Pfeiffer University: John Feinstein, “America’s favorite sportswriter” and author of A Season on the Brink
  • Queens University of Charlotte: Jennifer Watson Roberts, Chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners
  • St. Andrews Presbyterian College: Senator Richard Burr (R-NC)
  • Saint Augustine’s College: Major General Ronald L. Bailey, Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruit Depot/Western Recruiting Station
  • Shaw University: Bob Etheridge, former U.S. Representative (D-NC)
  • Southeastern College: Phil Ange, Pastor, Liberty FWB Baptist Church, Greenville, NC
  • UNC Asheville: Thomas W. Ross, President, University of North Carolina
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: E.O. Wilson, Jr., Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology at Harvard University and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction
  • UNC Charlotte: Graduating senior Wei Tsay
  • UNC Greensboro: Thomas S. Haggai, CEO and President, IGA, Inc.
  • UNC Pembroke: Dr. Charles Jenkins, Professor, Department of School Administration and Counseling
  • UNC Wilmington:  No outside speaker
  • UNC School of the Arts: Alan Mencken, Oscar winner, Grammy winner, and composer of  scores for several Disney classic films
  • Wake Forest University: Indra K. Nooyi, Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo
  • Warren Wilson College: Sylvia Earle, Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society
  • Western Carolina University: Tom Ross, President, University of North Carolina, and Aaron K. Ball, WCU professor of engineering and technology
  • Wingate University: David Burris, “Survivor” producer
  • Winston-Salem State University: Stephen A. Smith, ’91, media personality