For the second year in a row, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The focus of college commencements in North Carolina in 2011 has been on the kids, not on the flamboyance, notoriety, or political passions of the speakers who launch them into the post-academic world. Whether you chalk it up to the somber state of the economy or to the changeover to conservative political control in the state, the selection of commencement speakers this season was “fair and balanced” when viewed as a whole. (Scroll down to see the list.)
Looking over the choices at the 54 four-year colleges and universities listed below (some schools do not have outside speakers, or even formal commencement lectures), I was struck by the number affiliated with the armed services. Specifically, they are: Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (East Carolina); Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff (Elon); Navy Commander Porter Halyburton (Ret.), a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam (Greensboro College); Sally Brice-O’Hara, U. S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral (Meredith); and Major General Ronald L. Bailey, Commanding General of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot/Western Recruiting Region (St. Augustine’s).
Perhaps the most famous speakers were E.O. Wilson, biologist extraordinaire, at UNC-Chapel Hill; cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong at High Point; Nelson Mandela’s widow, Nomzamo Nobandla Winnifred Madikizela-Mandela, at Johnson C. Smith; and education secretary Arne Duncan at Fayetteville State.
Fame is an elastic term, and others in the list below can claim it, too. From political figures to business executives, plenty of people had the knowledge and experience to inspire the class of 2011. And the members of that class will need inspiration, as they enter a sluggish economy with a highly uncertain trajectory.
Editor’s note: Jenna Ashley Robinson, Ashley Russell, and Duke Cheston contributed to this report.
Commencement Speakers in North Carolina
Appalachian State University: Dee Freeman, an alumnus of the school and Secretary of the N.C Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Barton College: Dan Gerlach, President of the Golden LEAF Foundation
Belmont Abbey College: No outside speaker
Bennett College for Women: Elaine Jones, former President, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Brevard College: Members of the graduating class
Cabarrus College of Health Sciences: Not available
Campbell University: Dr. Barbara E. Walker, distinguished physician and member of the American Osteopathic Association
Catawba College: D.G. Martin, retired politician and host of “North Carolina Bookwatch” on UNC-TV
Chowan University: University students and trustees
Davidson College: John Kuykendall, President, Davidson College
Duke University: John Chambers, CEO and Chairman of Cisco Systems
East Carolina University: Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy
Elon University: Joan Higginbotham, former NASA astronaut
Fayetteville State University: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Gardner-Webb: Michael Anthony ‘72, state representative, South Carolina General Assembly
Greensboro College: Former P.O.W. Navy Cmdr. Porter Halyburton (Ret.)