Are Some Commencement Speakers Too Controversial?

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Over the coming weeks, colleges and universities across these fruited plains will be holding their commencement exercises. Guest speakers will take to the podium to extol the virtues of higher learning, at least that is what most people hope.

The reality is that some commencement speakers will be controversial, if not outright embarrassing to the school. Yet, if everything holds true to form most will say what they have to say, pocket their fee, and their words soon forgotten.

Some of the more controversial speakers scheduled for this year’s commencements include:

  • Jerry Springer will speak to Northwestern University grads on May 16th. The baudy talk show host graduated from Northwestern’s law school in 1968, giving him the right to speak. A student-led petition to keep Springer out has failed.
  • Supreme court associate justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused and never found guilty in the Anita Hill scandal, is scheduled to speak at the University of Georgia on May 10th. Opposition from UGA faculty has been voiced, but the school’s president has announced his support and Thomas will be allowed to speak.
  • Though not likely to be thought of as controversial by some, Al Gore’s extreme position on global warming does engender controversey. The 2007 Nobel Prize winner Gore will be the speaker at Carnegie-Mellon University on May 18th, complementing the university’s leading role in green practices and sustainability.
  • President Bush’s poll numbers are the pits, but that isn’t stopping him from being the commencement speaker at Greensburg High in Kansas, at the United States Air Force Academy, and at Furman University on May 31st. The latter engagement came through the influence of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a 1983 Furman grad and the university’s commencement speaker in 2002.
  • Some conservative students at George Washington University are unhappy with the choice of NAACP chairman Julian Bond as this year’s speaker. Bond is a civil rights leader, but has also sparked controversy by stating that, “…the Republican idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side.”
  • Lest you think that American colleges and universities are the only ones inviting speakers who are controversial, your conclusion would be wrong. In the Philippines, the speaker at last Friday’s University of Iloilo (UI) commencement was the country’s former and disgraced president, Joseph Estrada. Although the protests were tepid, parents of grads wondered if Mr. Estrada, who was later acquitted, was the right role model for their adult children.

Although most schools hold fast to their commencement speaker choices, the more controversial ones are often interrupted or booed off stage during the middle of their address. In 2003, at a commencement ceremony held at Rockford College, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges was forced to cut his address short as students were upset with his opposition to the Iraq War.

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Categories: Commentary