Big-name commencement speakers: revered tradition or a waste of time and money?

Commencement season is an often-controversial time. Last year was conspicuous for its wave of politically motivated disinvitations, with students trying, sometimes with success, to get their universities to rescind invitations to commencement speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice.  

This year started out with a more pragmatic controversy. In April, the University of Houston reluctantly admitted it is paying actor Matthew McConaughey $135,000 to speak at this month’s commencement ceremony. This raises important questions: At what point does the graduation ritual become too extravagant? Could college funds be put to better use than attracting celebrity speakers to say a few inspiring words to the graduating class? After all, most commencement speakers are paid nothing. 

And wouldn’t Houston have served its students better by spending that money on a one-year residency for a scholar of stature? Maybe the resident scholar could even give the commencement address. 

Perhaps an even more fundamental question: what role do commencement speakers perform that makes them so essential? 

The conventional knowledge is that colleges have powerful incentives to invite bigger and better speakers. Supposedly, they help with marketing by building buzz around a college’s brand. Also, they may have the potential to attract donations. 

But picking the wrong speaker could cost a school donations as well, and it’s not always easy to tell which speakers those will be. The marketing argument is plausible for small private schools, but even then, marketing is no excuse to interfere with the academic mission of a college. At subsidized public colleges, the idea that it is necessary to spend six figures on a big name for marketing purposes is absurd. Public colleges are there to fill a state’s need, not to increase it. 

There is also an argument to be made for giving students the speaker they want. Many schools choose based on student input: it’s their graduation, and they or their parents paid hard-earned money to make that happen. But how many of those students would spend money on a commencement speaker if given the choice to save it? 

Bills in New Jersey and Illinois have proposed banning public universities from using public funds to pay for commencement speakers. That would solve the problem of wasting tax dollars on speakers, a practice that becomes more abhorrent when the money is spent on controversial speakers that many students and taxpayers disapprove of. 

Still, grand commencement speeches are an old tradition that is not likely to disappear anytime soon. More and more universities aspire to host top celebrities and politicians, perhaps to compete with schools like Harvard, which has been churning out big-name speakers since at least the 19th century

One highly controversial pick for commencement speaker this year was Common, a rapper and actor, who was given two very different receptions by two different schools. First, he was unceremoniously canceled by the administration of Kean University in New Jersey in March, just hours after the announcement. The reason was that a police union complained that one of his songs takes the side of Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther who was convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper. 

But Common will not be missing out on graduation season altogether; he is still the keynote speaker at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university in North Carolina. In that university’s case, picking a commencement speaker is a democratic process. London Mickle, president of the staff senate at Winston-Salem State, told the Pope Center that a commencement committee chooses the speaker. The committee is formed from representatives of different units around campus—such as the chair of the faculty senate, the senior class president, people from the registrar’s office, academic affairs, and even the campus police. The committee picks the commencement speaker from a list of requests by the students, Mickle said. 

Then the committee finds out who from the list is available. The next step? “See [who] we can afford,” she said. 

Elsewhere in North Carolina (as in the rest of the country), there is a widely diverse group of commencement speakers, ranging from politicians and celebrities to academics and artists. High Point University—a school that has aggressively sought a higher profile in recent years—has boasted about attracting attention for its speakers. Recent picks have included former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell; 2015’s pick is former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. Also hosting a high-profile celebrity is Wake Forest University, with new Late Show host Stephen Colbert.  

There is a sizable, albeit relatively uncontroversial, list of political figures speaking this month in the state. Speakers include Governor Pat McCrory and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The former is speaking at Elizabeth City State University and Forysth Technical Community College, and the latter is speaking at NC Central University. Furthermore, Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is seeking the nomination to be the Democratic candidate for North Carolina governor in the 2016 election, will deliver Elon University School of Law’s address. Shaw University is hosting U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield, the new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Another popular category of commencement speaker is entrepreneurs or business leaders. The most high-profile of these in North Carolina is former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, who is giving the address at his alma mater UNC-Chapel Hill. Warren Wilson College, the Asheville-based liberal arts college, is hosting New Belgium Brewing Company CEO Kim Jordan. 

From the arts community, UNC-Pembroke picked Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore, a popular pick in 2014’s freshman summer reading programs. Queens University of Charlotte chose Marshall Curry, a documentary filmmaker who has been twice nominated for an Academy Award.

Here is a partial list of commencement speakers (or the absence of speakers) in North Carolina (in alphabetical order by college):  

  • Appalachian State University: no outside speakers
  • Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College: no outside speakers
  • Barton College: Sidney S. Eagles, Jr., former chief judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals
  • Bennett College: Luke Visconti, CEO and founder of DiversityInc
  • Bladen College: Vinston Rozier, district judge
  • Campbell University: Dr. Allen L. Dobson, president and CEO of Community Care of North Carolina
  • Campbell University Law School: Elaine Marshall, North Carolina secretary of state
  • Davidson College: no outside speakers
  • Duke University: Dr. Paul Farmer, humanitarian and founder, Partners in Health
  • Elizabeth City State University: Governor Pat McCrory
  • Elon University: Charlie Cook, publisher of Cook Political Report and columnist for the National Journal
  • Elon University Law School: Roy Cooper, North Carolina attorney general
  • Fayetteville State University: Kenyata Wesley, acting director for the Office of Small Business Programs at the Department of Defense
  • Fayetteville Technical Community College: Chris Rey, mayor of Spring Lake
  • Forsyth Technical Community College: Governor Pat McCrory
  • Gardner-Webb University: no outside speakers
  • Greensboro College: Emmanuel Dei-Tumi, author, nonprofit leader, motivational speaker, and founder/CEO of Future Leaders Group
  • Guilford College: Aaron Fetrow, former dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Guilford College
  • High Point University: Tom Brokaw, former anchor of NBC Nightly News
  • Johnson C. Smith University: Tom Joyner, radio host
  • Lees-McRae College: Harvey Lowd, chairman of the Lees-McRae College Board of Trustees
  • Lenoir-Rhyne University: no outside speakers
  • Livingstone College: U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina
  • Meredith College: no outside speakers
  • Methodist University: Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor at PBS NewsHour
  • Montreat College: Ken Barun, chief of staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
  • N.C. A&T State University: U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, civil rights activist
  • N.C. Central University: Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education
  • NC State University: France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation
  • N.C. Wesleyan College: Quentin T. Sumner, senior resident judge for the North Carolina Superior Court
  • Pfeiffer University: Arch Stokes, trial lawyer with Stokes, Wagner, Hunt, Maretz & Terrell
  • Queens University of Charlotte: Marshall Curry, documentary fimmaker
  • Salem University: Dr. Freda C. Lewis-Hall, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Pfizer, Inc.
  • Shaw University: U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina
  • St. Andrews Presbyterian College: Dr. Heath K. Rada, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly
  • St. Augustine University: U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Virginia
  • UNC Asheville: Wiley Cash, novelist
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: Jason Kilar, founding CEO of Hulu
  • UNC Charlotte: No outside speakers
  • UNC Greensboro: Tim Rice, former CEO of Cone Health
  • UNC Pembroke: Wes Moore, author
  • UNC School of the Arts: Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  • UNC Wilmington (Watson College of Education and the College of Health and Human Services): James Faison III, district judge
  • University of Mount Olive: Kenney Moore, founder of Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes, and Fries
  • Wake Forest University: Stephen Colbert, comedian, television host, actor, and author
  • Wake Technical Community College: James West, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners
  • Warren Wilson College: Kim Jordan, founder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing Company
  • William Peace University: Dr. Assad Meymandi, founding editor and editor-in-chief of Wake County Physician Magazine
  • Winston-Salem State University: Common, rapper and actor