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Students in caps and gowns leave while the commencement speaker is still speaking.
Some students walked out on Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s commencement speech at Virginia Commonwealth University in May 2024. The Washington Post via Getty Images

I served as a college president for nearly two decades – I know choosing the right commencement speaker can be fraught with risks

The 2024 commencement season has been one of the most contentious in recent memory. Amid pro-Palestinian protests at campuses nationwide over the war in the Gaza Strip, some universities – such as Columbia University and the University of Southern California – have canceled their commencement ceremonies. Others, such as Duke University, have drawn sharp rebukes and condemnations from students due to their university’s choice of a commencement speaker. Still others, such as Xavier University of Louisiana, have rescinded invitations to commencement speakers deemed too controversial.

To gain insight into the challenges that colleges face in choosing a commencement speaker, The Conversation reached out to Walter M. Kimbrough, a longtime college president who currently holds an executive appointment at University of Southern California. His thoughts are reflected in the following Q&A.

How are commencement speakers typically selected?

There are a range of ways schools select commencement speakers. For some campuses there is a university-wide committee which will make a selection for the president to approve. Some campuses survey students to get recommendations for the speaker. On many campuses the president – and maybe a group of advisers – will select the speaker. In all cases, the president will have some say in the selection.

Who gets to have the most say, and why?

Ultimately the president will have the final say in the selection, especially if a speaker has the potential to be controversial. If there is an issue with what a speaker says or does, the president will ultimately have to answer for the selection.

What are the most important characteristics or qualities to consider?

There are a range of philosophies that inform commencement speaker selection. Some institutions use it as an opportunity to highlight successful alumni, generally with the hopes of that alumnus becoming a major donor to the institution.

Politicians, both local and national, are often selected as speakers. Many see this as a goodwill gesture for a politician that represents the institution and who might have influence in helping the institution acquire resources.

Institutions with significant budgets for commencement, or great contacts, will select a celebrity for commencement. The theory there is that commencement is the largest branding event for a college or university each year. A celebrity boosts visibility with the potential for national media coverage, both print and digital. It is always a coup for an institution’s speaker to be part of the annual NBC Nightly News graduation recap.

Two men wearing graduation ceremony gowns -- one blue and one black -- stand next to each other.
The author, then-Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, stands alongside the school’s 2015 commencement speaker, actor Denzel Washington. Josh Brasted via Getty Images

What makes a commencement speech successful?

I believe commencement should be fun. A speaker that can connect with the audience, or one that brings excitement, leads to a successful speech. This is done most easily with a very popular commencement speaker. For example, while president of Dillard University – a small, historically Black, private liberal arts college located in New Orleans – we were able to host celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Denzel Washington, Janelle Monae, Chance the Rapper, Regina Hall and Michael Ealy.

From the time of the announcement until the speaker’s actual appearance, not only the graduates but their families and the broader community become more excited about the event. The actual speech should be short, no more than 15 minutes, because their presence alone makes graduates feel extra special on this day.

Why do so many commencement speaker selections backfire?

Most commencement speeches go off without any issues, generally because the speaker is someone unknown to the audience and there is little interest in their message. Campuses generally select someone who will be safe and noncontroversial.

When there is a backfire, it is generally because the speaker says something that appears to be out of character or not consistent with previous comments. In recent years, with a contentious political climate, politicians and other government officials pose a greater risk for commencement.

This might look like the recent actions of Virginia Commonwealth University graduates who walked out on state Governor Glenn Youngkin as he gave the commencement speech, or a more contentious protest like the one at Bethune-Cookman University when former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was the speaker. Not only did some students walk out, others turned their backs on her, and many in the audience booed her throughout the presentation. When the then-president intervened and threatened to mail students their diplomas, he too was booed.

And sometimes what normally is a good idea happens at the wrong time. Morehouse College requested President Joe Biden as their 2024 commencement speaker early last fall. Then Oct. 7 changed everything, leading to months of protests on college campuses as Israel has maintained its attack on Hamas, with tens of thousands of Palestinians being wounded or killed. While Biden would not have been the most exciting speaker for the students, as there are some concerns about promises made to Black communities being left unfulfilled, the event would have probably been controversy-free. That’s how it was when Biden spoke at Howard University in 2023 or in 2021 at South Carolina State University.

Push the envelope or play it safe?

Today, more presidents are risk-averse due to the political climate and the myriad stressors they currently face. Creating a potential conflict with a risky graduation speaker, for most, is not worth it. So they play it safe, and boring.

As a college president, I always tried to find people we have never heard before on that kind of platform. That is a risk, but every time, the audience was pleasantly surprised. When we hosted actor Michael Ealy, he gave one of the most thought-provoking commencements addresses we had ever had, causing many faculty members to remark that he may have been the best during my tenure – including Denzel Washington’s speech, which went viral.

Actor Michael Ealy delivers the commencement address at Dillard University in 2021.

For me, it isn’t so much about playing it safe. Commencement is a celebration and should be fun. A fun and exciting commencement speaker is an important part of that equation.

Is an unpopular pick necessarily the wrong pick?

There is always a chance an unpopular pick for commencement speaker delivers a pleasant surprise. So that isn’t necessarily the wrong pick. But someone involved in current or past controversies will always be the wrong pick and will increase chances of criticism of the institution and dampening the mood for the occasion. Knowing a speaker may lead students to walk out or cause protests means you might have the wrong pick for that time.

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