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Selecting commencement speakers: An art or a science?

Refining the process of choosing a successful commencement speaker
University Business, April 2016
Wake Forest U’s 2014 commencement speaker, Jill Abramson, was no longer New York Times editor-in-chief when she gave her speech, but the talk was still well received.
Wake Forest U’s 2014 commencement speaker, Jill Abramson, was no longer New York Times editor-in-chief when she gave her speech, but the talk was still well received.

Choices for commencement speakers are making headlines this season, and higher ed officials are aiming to make sure those headlines are positive.

Many colleges now prioritize student input and diversity when choosing commencement speakers. They are also developing screening processes to ensure speakers are both engaging and appropriate for the audience of graduating students and their families, faculty and administrators.

At Manhattanville College in New York, the process begins before the fall semester with a dialogue between the Student Government Association and administrators to create a list of potential speakers.

Seniors then receive an email survey with the names of six to eight suggested speakers. Student-to-student surveys on campus provide more insight, says David Nielsen, president of the association.

Some schools cultivate all suggestions from their seniors. At Dillard University in New Orleans, graduating students submit a single list of 10 personalities they’d like to hear speak at commencement, says Yolanda Page, vice president for academic affairs. So far, the school has been able to secure speakers based on student requests.

The importance of vetting potential commencement stars cannot be overstated, as most schools grant an honorary degree to these individuals.

Data Point

30: Approximate percentage of colleges and universities that pay for commencement speakers. Source: Speakers.com

Officials at Pepperdine University in California create short candidate biographies for potential speakers. Thorough research helps in identifying any incidents in the candidates’ pasts that may not align with the university’s mission, says Marnie Duke Mitze, associate vice president and chief of staff for the president’s office.

During a particularly tempestuous election year, campus officials are paying close attention to a speaker’s political views.

Wake Forest University in North Carolina invites a diverse mix to its campus—with past speakers coming from the right and the left, says Mary E. Pugel, chief of staff at the office of the president. Manhattanville identifies itself as a nonpartisan institution, and will not invite elected officials to speak at commencement.

Many schools prioritize diversity. Speakers’ gender and race are taken into account at Pepperdine, says Mitze, adding that this year’s seven speakers reflect the school’s diverse student body. (For example, 2016 commencement speaker and Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Michelle King is the first African-American woman to hold the position at the district.)

Campus leaders should also consider a person’s speaking experience. “Content does matter, more so than the name of a commencement speaker,” says Michael Frick, CEO of speaker logistics planning provider Speaking.com. “If a candidate doesn’t have much public speaking experience, they should be willing to hire a speechwriter or work with someone to hone their message.”

Universities often recommend a time limit for speeches (12 to 15 minutes is typical) and urge speakers to stay on script. Ad-libbing can detract from the intended message and extend timing past an audience’s attention span.

Logistical matters

Many schools only pay a speaker’s travel expenses, relying instead on their brand and personal connections to land “big names.”

The official invitation to speakers traditionally comes directly from an institution’s president, but some schools succeed with a more personal approach. Dillard’s class of 2015 was determined to host President Barack Obama at its commencement, but initial attempts to reach the White House were futile.

Shortly before graduation, senior class president Nicole Pinson penned a letter to the Oval Office, detailing some of the HBCU’s history and its rebound from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Soon after, the White House contacted Dillard to inquire whether First Lady Michelle Obama would suffice as a speaker. About 5,000 people came to see her address the graduates, says Page.

Higher ed leaders agree a commencement speaker must deliver a message of perseverance and success to inspire graduates. A balance of thoughtful and provocative content is required. To help speakers get in touch with student culture, Manhattanville invites them to attend a lunch with its Student Government Association in early spring before commencement.

Like any live event, unplanned circumstances can define the success of a commencement ceremony. In May 2014, weeks before she was scheduled to speak at Wake Forest’s graduation, New York Times Editor-in-Chief Jill Abramson was fired by the newspaper. Initial concern about her attendance was unfounded, and Abramson delivered a speech exceptional for its honesty and contextual relevance, says Pugel.

Abramson addressed her situation, quipping that a major similarity between herself and the students was their unemployed status.

Ultimately, a commencement speaker will help students and families recognize the triumph of graduation day. “Commencement speakers who incorporate humor and gravitas, who can hit that moment’s cultural zeitgeist and tie it into universal themes of life,” says Frick, “are those we remember the best.”

Who's coming to campus for 2016 commencement?

  • Harry Connick Jr. (entertainer), Loyola University (New Orleans)
  •  Matt Damon (entertainer), MIT University (Cambridge, Mass.)
  • Paul Ryan (U.S. Representative), Carthage College (Kenosha, Wis.)
  • Jeanette Epps (astronaut), Le Moyne College (Syracuse, N.Y.)
Taxonomy: 

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