In One State, Kinder and Gentler Commencements

(Editor’s note: Scroll down to see a list of this year’s commencement speakers in North Carolina.).

It’s graduation season—the time of year when young people are publicly recognized for their academic achievements. It’s also the time of year when colleges and universities invite public figures to speak at commencement ceremonies, sometimes with controversial results.

For example, Howard University in Washington D.C., has invited pop culture icon Sean “Diddy” Combs to deliver its spring commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate. The popular entertainment figure attended Howard, but elected not to finish his degree to pursue a career as a multi-faceted entrepreneur. While many like landing such a big name, others—including students, alumni, and just casual observers—aren’t keen on celebrity speakers who didn’t graduate.

Combs will speak, but a disinvitation took place at Brandeis University. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist in favor of women’s equality, was scheduled to speak and receive an honorary degree this spring. Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali experienced genital mutilation at age 5, fled an arranged marriage, became a member of Parliament in the Netherlands, and wrote a memoir, Infidel. She was rejected as speaker because 6,000 people signed a petition charging her with “Islamophobia” and “hate speech.”

North Carolina colleges and universities are steering clear of such controversy. Just the opposite in fact. At least four representatives of charitable organizations—from North Carolina to Africa—are speaking this year, along with a number of academic figures such as University of North Carolina president Tom Ross.

Duke University and High Point University have landed two highly decorated military leaders. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey will speak at Duke, where he earned a master’s degree after completing his undergraduate degree at West Point. General Colin Powell, USA (Ret), a former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will address students at High Point University. While General Powell doesn’t have any ties to High Point, he is no stranger on the commencement circuit, having delivered past speeches at institutions such as Harvard and Northwestern.

Even political figures can be non-controversial. Dr. Atul Gawande, who will be speaking at UNC=-Chapel Hill, has led a distinguished career as a surgeon, journalist, and author. (He currently writes about medicine for the New Yorker.) He has also advised or served on the campaigns of many Democratic politicians including Al Gore and was considered a possible replacement for the late Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009. Who will show up, the accomplished surgeon or the political actor?

Indeed, a few politicians are scheduled: Governor Pat McCrory  will speak at Wingate (or at least that is the rumor) and Congressman G. K. Butterfield at the University of Mount Olive. Of course, the first lady of South Africa, Madame Gloria Bongi Ngema-Zuma, who will speak at Shaw University, arouses no controversy. Nor does Nancy MacFarlane, mayor of Raleigh, who will speak at William Peace University in Raleigh.

Four women closely connected with charitable foundations will give commencement talks. For example, Susan Mboya is both a Coca-Cola executive in Africa and founder of the Zawadi Africa Fund, which provides college scholarships for disadvantaged women in Africa to colleges around the world. One of those colleges is Meredith, where Mboya will be speaking. Karen McNeil-Miller, who heads the Winston-Salem-based Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, will address students at Campbell University. The non-profit organization she heads seeks to improve the quality of life and especially the health of low-income people in North Carolina.

Three universities have invited well-known corporation figures to address their students. Robert A. Niblock, chairman and CEO of the Mooresville-based home improvement chain Lowe’s Companies, Inc., will speak at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. Pfeiffer University, in Miesenheimer, North Carolina, will receive Brad Wilson, president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. The Watauga County native is also a former chair of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. Red Hat’s president, Jim Whitehurst, will speak at Campbell Law School’s commencement.

Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, will deliver the commencement address at Elon University School of Law. Ross, who holds a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, has been UNC president since 2011. He was previously president of Davidson College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1972.

Thus, barring any unforeseen surprises, the 2014 spring commencement season in North Carolina is shaping up to be one of little strife.

Here is a list of the 2014 speakers known at press time:

  • Appalachian State University: Kenneth E. Peacock, chancellor, Magdalena Maiz-Pena, Davidson College professor, and John Carter, news anchor at WBTV in Charlotte
  • Barton College: Anita Brown-Graham, director of the Institute of Emerging Issues, North Carolina State University
  • Bennett College: Margot James Copeland, executive vice president, KeyBank, and chair, Keybank Foundation
  • Cabarrus College of Health Sciences: Lynne Scott Safrit, president and COO of Castle and Cooke Mortgage, LLC
  • Campbell University: Karen McNeil-Miller, president of Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust
  • Campbell University Law School: Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat president and CEO
  • Duke University: General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Elizabeth City State University: Dr. Rosalind Fuse-Hall, president, Bennett College
  • Elon University: Mary Carillo, NBC sportscaster (and 1977 French Open mixed-doubles co-winner)
  • Elon University Law School: Tom Ross, president, University of North Carolina
  • Fayetteville State University: Donald Julian Reaves, Ph.D., chancellor, Winston-Salem State University
  • Gardner-Webb University: no outside speakers
  • Greensboro College: Brian Carden, retired HondaJet executive
  • High Point University: General Colin Powell (Ret.), former secretary of state and chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Johnson C. Smith University: Robert A. Niblock, chairman of the board and CEO of Lowe’s Companies, Inc.
  • Lees-McRae College: Jane Stephenson, founder of the New Opportunity School for Women at Lees-McRae, and Thomas Brigam, chairman, ARK Real Estate Strategies
  • Lenoir-Rhyne University: no outside speakers
  • Meredith College: Susan Mboya, Coca-Cola executive and founder of Zawadi Africa Education Fund
  • NC A&T State University: Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges
  • NC State University: David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States
  • NC Wesleyan College: Greg Jones, senior strategist for leadership education and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School
  • Pfeiffer University: Brad Wilson, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina
  • Queens University of Charlotte: Jay Bilas, ESPN analyst and former Duke basketball player
  • Shaw University: Madam Gloria Bongi Ngema-Zuma, first lady of the Republic of South Africa
  • St. Andrews Presbyterian College: Geneva Overholser, journalist and former director of the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism
  • UNC Asheville: Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former professor at Columbia University
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon, author, and political actor
  • UNC Charlotte: No outside speakers
  • UNC Greensboro: Dom Amendum, Broadway director
  • UNC Pembroke: Brigadier General Allen J. Jamerson
  • UNC Wilmington: Malcomb Coley, partner at Ernst & Young; Margaret Weller Stargell, president & CEO of Coastal Horizons Centers
  • University of Mount Olive: Congressman G. K. Butterfield, representative of North Carolina’s first district
  • Wake Forest University: Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times
  • Warren Wilson College: Peter Segal, host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me”
  • William Peace University: Nancy McFarlane, Raleigh mayor
  • Wingate University: Governor Pat McCrory (reported)
  • Winston-Salem State University: Steve Pemberton, chief diversity officer and divisional vice president, Walgreens

(Editor’s note: After publication time, we learned of the following speakers:)

  • Livingstone College: Jocelyn Frye, senior fellow at the Center for American
    Progress in Washington, D.C., formerly policy director for Michelle Obama
  • Mars Hill College: Rev. Dr. Dixon Free, former pastor of First Baptist
    Church of Lincolnton, North Carolina
  • Methodist University: Major Dan Rooney, retired F-16 fighter pilot and founder of Folds of Honor
  • Montreat College: Dr. Don King, English professor, Montreat College English Professor
  • NC Central School of Law: Paulette Brown, chief diversity officer, Edwards Wildman’s Labor
    & Employment Practice Group
  • St. Augustine University: Darryl Scriven, former professor of philosophy at Wilberforce University, Southern University, and Tuskegee University