Commencement Speaker Controversy: Name of the Game


Graduating from college is an exercise in and of itself: a commencement exercise, that is. Years of hard work and study have paid off with grads wanting to mark their special occasion by basking in the limelight as family members and friends look on.

graduateBut college and university commencement organizing committees don’t always come up with speakers who appeal to grads or even particularly endear themselves to the community at-large. Over the years a number of controversial choices have spoken at graduation ceremonies, leading to calls for rescinding invitations, protests, even boycotts of the event.

Controversy Brews

This year, grads at Syracuse University and Columbia University are up in the arms over the selection of bankers as their commencement speakers. Jamie Dimon, chief executive offer for JP Morgan Chase & Co. will address Orangemen while Citigroup’s chairman, Vikram Pandit, will speak at Columbia. Students at both schools have denounced these selections, noting that both institutions have accepted federal bail out funds and are paying their executives millions in bonus money.

Controversial commencement speakers are nothing new, something we examined in April 2008 right here on these pages. Sometimes the controversy has to do with the political unpopularity of a leader, as in the case of then President George W. Bush, even an unfounded accusation made against a speaker as in the case of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who was vilified by Anita Hill.

Controversial Speakers

Let’s take a look at four of the more newsworthy and controversial speakers who have graced the commencement dais over the years:

Barack Obama – The former senator from Illinois and now president of the United States of America is a lightning rod particularly for those opposed to his liberal orthodoxy. That didn’t stop the supposed bastion of Roman Catholicism in America, the University of Notre Dame, from inviting the president in 2009. Some Catholics protested, noting his stance for abortion on demand, polar opposite to Vatican teaching.

Meg Whitman – A Republican candidate for governorship of California, Whitman was to speak at the 2009 UCLA business school commencement, but had to pull out due to supposed scheduling conflicts. Whitman was criticized for her support of Proposition 8 which sought to uphold a ban on two men or two women marrying each other in the Golden State.

Salman Rushdie – Rushdie’s life has been threatened since writing Satanic Verses in 1988. That book was not looked upon as favorable by Muslim extremists who were later urged by a cleric to kill Rushdie and his publishers. Still, Rushdie has managed to score several commencement invites including Bard College in 1996 and at Nova Southern University in 2006.

Hillary Clinton – So what’s so controversial about the former first lady? Plenty, actually. But that also depends on who you are speaking with. The current Secretary of State had her run ins with her new boss, Barack Obama, as both were battling for the honor of representing Democrats in 2008 and has the shadow of her husband, Bill Clinton, to contend with. But, Clinton is a popular orator and speaker, addressing NYU’s graduating class in 2009 followed by Barnard College.

As you might guess, social networking has made it easier for people to voice their concern about a particular speaker. Facebook routinely hosts protest pages including those for students from Syracuse and Columbia in a bid to get school’s to reverse course.

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Categories: Campus News