The contrarian approach to commencement: Why I'm giving the speech

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Commencement can be a touchy subject. Planning a college commencement ceremony is something like planning a wedding: it is a deeply personal milestone played out before an audience of friends and family, and there is just one chance to "get it right." Expectations are high, the stakes higher, and the stakeholders are many. Yet I would suggest that in the well-intentioned effort to meet these high expectations, colleges and universities may be doing their graduates a disservice. Consider the choice that is often the most difficult, the most debated and potentially the most polarizing in the quest for the perfect event: the commencement speaker.

In the two years since I became president of Gordon College, I have thought quite a lot about how Gordon celebrates commencement--and, just as importantly, why. I keep coming back to "why." Whose purpose should we be serving? Certainly, there are institutional benefits to incorporating a high-profile speaker into an institution's commencement ceremonies; it can add cachet to a major campus event, and, if we're lucky, a speaker may offer a rich, memorable message to the graduating class. But at what cost? Especially for smaller institutions, star power may not be our wisest institutional investment.

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