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Could colleges please stop giving free campaign time at commencement?

By Jenna Ashley Robinson

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May 18, 2012

On May 12, I attended my doctoral hooding ceremony—where I received my Ph.D. in political science. As commencements go, it was pretty enjoyable. It wasn’t outside in the hot sun, and there were only 250 recipients, so I didn’t have to wait while hundreds of undergraduates received their degrees.

And I didn’t have to listen to a political speech! Mark Levoy, the Stanford computer science professor who spoke at my ceremony, gave an entertaining—and brief—talk about the ups and downs of working in academia.

But thousands of graduating seniors across North Carolina weren’t so lucky. Legislators, political commentators, political operatives, and first ladies spoke at commencement ceremonies at 13 North Carolina universities.

In an election year, that means political speeches. While only a few of the speakers were overtly partisan, they did speak about public policy and the current political climate and churned out popular and cliched political themes like “change” and “social justice.”

If it were up to me, university-wide commencements wouldn’t exist. Departmental ceremonies—with their focus on individual student achievement and shared university experiences—are a much more fitting celebration of academic accomplishment. But since ending the tradition is unlikely, let me recommend that universities at least stop inviting politicians.

Political speeches, with their focus on using government to solve national and global problems, are inevitably somewhat depressing, not to mention predictable and boring. Liberal universities choose progressive speakers who tell students and faculty what they want to hear. The parallel happens on conservative campuses. Speakers rarely say anything that can’t already be found on their campaign websites or latest press releases.

And of course, they don’t need to. In an election year, just giving a speech in front of thousands of potential constituents is enough for a politician. It provides a free platform and instant name recognition. At the ballot box this fall, voters won’t remember the particulars of what a speaker has said, just that he or she was the one who gave a “nice speech” at graduation.

And for those who aren’t running for office (or promoting those who are), well, the egos of politicians are famous.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed a crowd of more than 30,000 at the university’s football stadium. During his speech, Bloomberg lambasted the state of North Carolina for its recent vote on an amendment to define marriage as a union between “one man and one woman.” That wouldn’t have played well in parts of the state (the amendment won, after all) but Bloomberg was surrounded by liberal friends at Chapel Hill.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at the UNC School of Law, made sure to mention other prominent Democrats who have spoken at UNC in the past and touted pieces of the Obama administration’s platform—from increasing government healthcare to opposing voter identification laws.

Political journalist Fareed Zakaria touched on international affairs at Duke University. Donna Brazile, a political strategist for the Democratic party, spoke at St. Augustine’s College, telling students to “believe in a cause”—hardly novel advice.

Three first ladies spoke at North Carolina universities. Michelle Obama delivered the commencement address at NC A&T University, where she spoke about the civil rights movement and urged students to “seek change.” Laura Bush delivered the commencement speech at High Point University, focusing mostly on her own work in education and promoting the Bush Institute’s programs for high school dropout prevention.

The former first lady of New York Silda Wall Spitzer did break the mold. She addressed students at Meredith, speaking more as a fellow alumna than a political player.

Finally, North Carolina NAACP president William Barber, who made headlines last year for his arrest during a protest at a Wake County School Board meeting, spoke at North Carolina Central. “The soul of our nation is on trial,” Barber told students. “If our values are right and our budgets are just, we can build a better society. . . . We can reject hate and division.”

Do graduates need to hear such hypocritical bromides? By the time students reach commencement, they’ve already sat through hundreds of lectures and seminars—some inspiring or challenging and others very dull. The last thing students want on their final day on campus is something resembling Poli Sci 101. Commencement speeches should encourage students to think about their accomplishments and look forward to the future. They shouldn’t be convenient soapboxes for the next political campaign.

Other political speakers across the state were:

  • Alexis Herman, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, at Bennett College for Women.
  • Maj. Gen. William K. Suter, retired Clerk of the United States Supreme Court, at Campbell’s School of Law.
  • Former U.S. Ambassador William L. Swing, at Catawba College.
  • Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Crime Control Reuben F. Young, at Elizabeth City State University.
  • Efton Sager, a member of the North Carolina House who is currently running for reelection, at Mount Olive.
  • Dan Gerlach, a former advisor to North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, at St. Andrews University.
  • Erskine Bowles, former Senate candidate and former president of the UNC System, at UNC Asheville.
  • Retired NC Supreme Court Justice Burley Mitchell, at Peace University.

 


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