A Refreshing Commencement Season

Last year, many North Carolina colleges and universities invited politicians to be keynote speakers during their commencement ceremonies. This year the focus was on speakers who made it big in the technology industry, plus some academics and celebrities from television news.

Only two elected leaders showed up—Governor Pat McCrory at Catawba College and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young at Johnson C. Smith University. Was that because there is no imminent election? Maybe. Personally, we’d like to think it was because the Pope Center¹s Jenna Robinson criticized the political emphasis last year in her article “No Politician Approved This Message.” But either way, here are this year’s commencement speakers.

One of the most prominent tech industry leaders to serve as a commencement speaker was Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple computers. He spoke to graduates of High Point University. In case you don’t remember the story, Wozniak and Steve Jobs started Apple out of Jobs’ garage, and the company has since become one of the most powerful and profitable in the world.

UNC-Chapel Hill snagged Steve Case, co-founder of America Online. Remember all of those free AOL CDs back in the late 90’s? That was Case.

At Duke University, Melinda Gates gave the commencement address. Gates is a philanthropist and wife of billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

NC State University’s commencement speaker also made it big in a technical field, albeit not computing. Phillip Freelon is the president of an architecture firm responsible for building the new Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture. His firm is also working on NC State’s new Gregg Museum of Art & Design.

NC A&T State University hosted Dmitri Stockton, an A&T alum and the president and CEO of General Electric Asset Management.

St. Augustine’s College hosted Cynthia Marshall, senior vice president of human resources at AT&T.

Several businessmen and women from not-so-technological fields spoke as well.

Sharon Orlopp, global chief diversity officer and senior vice-president for Walmart, spoke at Fayetteville State University.

Jerry Nadal, senior vice-president for the  acrobatic performance company Cirque du Soleil, spoke at the UNC School of the Arts.

John Kasay, former kicker and all-time points leader for the Carolina Panthers football team, spoke at Wingate University.

Elizabeth H. Roberts, former director of the Financial Stability Institute at the Bank of International Settlements in Switzerland, spoke at Lees-McRae College.

Another noteworthy feature of this year’s slate of speakers was the number of celebrities from television news.

Wake Forest University hosted Gwen Ifill, managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour.”

Elon University hosted Brian Williams, the anchor for the nightly NBC newscast, the most-watched in America.

NC Central University featured Fredericka Whitfield, correspondent and anchor for CNN.

There was one artist at two schools.

Joseph Bathanti, North Carolina’s 7th poet laureate as of 2011, spoke at Warren Wilson College and St. Andrews University

There were a handful of politicians

Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, spoke at Catawba College, his alma mater. 

Donnell “Trip” Van Noppen III, president of Earthjustice, a leading environmentalist law firm, spoke at Queens University of Charlotte.

Erskine Bowles, former president of the UNC system and White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton, spoke at William Peace University.

Andrew Young, current philanthropist, former UN ambassador under President Carter, former Congressman, and former mayor of Atlanta, spoke at Johnson C. Smith University.

Anne-Marie Slaughter was the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011. She spoke at Meredith College.

Arlinda Locklear, a Pembroke native and Washington, DC, attorney specializing in American Indian law, spoke at UNC Pembroke.

Some chose religious leaders.

Denny Rydberg, president of Young Life, the national para-church Christian ministry, spoke at Montreat College.

Michael C. Blackwell, president of Baptist Children’s House of NC, spoke at Mars Hill College.

Belmont Abbey College featured Gregory J. Hartmeyer, bishop of Savannah, Georgia, in its commencement address.

Most of the rest were from universities.

Henry Perry, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is descended from the founder of what became Appalachian State University, spoke at ASU.

Norman Anderson, CEO of the American Psychological Association, spoke at UNC-Greensboro.

Cleveland L. Sellers, Jr., president of Voorhees College, spoke at Shaw University.

Assad Meymandi, a psychiatrist, scholar, and philanthropist, spoke at Barton College.

Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College, spoke at her school. (It’s a Davidson tradition.)

Opey D. Jeanes, vice president for special services at Mount Olive College for over 20 years, will speak at Mount Olive College.

Leonard A. Slade, Jr., former chair of Africana Studies and former director of the Humanistic Studies Doctoral Program at SUNY-Albany, spoke at Elizabeth City State University.

Jennifer Braaten, president of Ferrum University in Virginia, spoke at Greensboro College.

And a few fit none of the above categories.

Janelle Rhyne, medical director of Cape Fear HealthNet, spoke at Campbell University.

Brevard College’s commencement address featured two students from its graduating class, Mark Moseley of Wilmington, Delaware, and Chelsea Preciado from Franklin, Tennessee.