Commencement speakers made news this year mostly by their absence. Protesters on the left assailed speakers who had been invited by colleges and universities, and in some cases, they got their wish, driving away the intended guests.
Brandeis University rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist. Others withdrew in the face of protests: Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, from Rutgers University; Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, from Smith College; and Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, from Haverford College.
This topic of scuttled speakers was on the minds of many of those who did speak, including some who addressed colleges where the protests succeeded. Some approached the issue humorously and others seriously, some obliquely and others head-on.
Mostly, they expressed disapproval, warning against political orthodoxy, and insisting that the principle of airing opposing views should have trumped whatever objections there were to the speakers. (Hirsi Ali was opposed for her denigration of Islam, Rice for her role in the Iraq War, Lagarde for the IMF’s treatment of poor nations and Birgeneau for Berkeley’s rough treatment of Occupy protesters.)
Some of the favored graduation themes of recent years have faded - the failings of the financial system, the moral dimensions of a muscular U.S. stance in the world - while others have flourished.
Speakers exhorted young people to take risks, court failure, and embrace uncertainty and change. They noted the growing importance of high-tech fields that have long embraced those values, and the growing influence of that culture on non-tech careers.
And many speakers sought to shake graduates out of any complacency - deflating their egos a bit, reminding them how fortunate they are, lamenting persistent economic inequality, and urging them to work hard and pursue higher causes.
Michael R. Bloomberg
Former New York City mayor and majority owner of Bloomberg LP
“Intolerance of ideas, whether liberal or conservative, is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship. There is an idea floating around college campuses, including here at Harvard, that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism. Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. ...
“Requiring scholars - and commencement speakers, for that matter - to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.”
Former president of Smith College and Brown University
“I felt it important to answer the request to stand in for the announced speaker, Madame Christine Lagarde. ...
“One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views. My first year after leaving Smith, I had to insist that Brown permit a speaker whose every assertion was dangerous and deeply offensive to me on a personal level. Indeed, he maintained that blacks were better off having been enslaved. Attending his talk and hearing his perspective was personally challenging, but not in the least challenging to my convictions about the absolute necessity of permitting others to hear him say these heinous things. I could have avoided the talk, as his ideas were known to me, but to have done so would have been to choose personal comfort over a freedom whose value is so great that hearing his unwelcome message could hardly be assessed as too great a cost. Universities have a special obligation to protect free speech, open discourse and the value of protest. The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise.”
William G. Bowen
Former president of Princeton University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
“I want to suggest, with all due respect for the venerable right to protest - which I would defend to the end - that it is a serious mistake for a leader of the protest against Birgeneau’s proposed honorary degree to claim that Birgeneau’s decision not to come represents a ‘small victory.’ It represents nothing of the kind. In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford - no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”
The University of California, Berkeley
Steven L. Isenberg
Writer, professor and former publisher
“Some of you and your parents may have in mind a question as to the world of work and English majors: ‘Do they need us?’ I was reading again, recently, the autobiography of one of my favorite novelists, Graham Greene, and was struck by this sentence: ‘Perhaps, until one starts at the age of 70 to live on borrowed time, no year will seem again quite so ominous as the one when formal education ends and the moment arrives to find employment and bear personal responsibility for the whole future.’ I remembered when I graduated feeling a certain sense of loss at having to leave the coherence and happiness I had built up in undergraduate life. I was unsettled by not knowing what I would do next. The first in my family to go to college, I had small knowledge of the world’s possibilities and only impulses of interests, rather than a settled direction. But I did know how to read and loved to do so, and I liked to write, however much work I knew my writing needed, so I banked on those two elements for confidence, feeling they must be a foundation for whatever was to be ahead.”
“I just can’t tell you how disappointed I am with you. It was three months ago that Albright announced me as your guest, and not a peep from you.”
At other colleges, “students mounted furious protests, signed petitions, dispatched lists of demands to prospective speakers, in letters boiling with moral outrage. And what do I get? Directions from the turnpike. Come on, did nobody Google me? Have I said or written nothing in 37 years as a journalist to offend your sensibilities and provoke righteous indignation? Oh, man. Do you have any idea - any idea - what a disinvitation would have done for my profile?”
Harvey Mudd College
“Your unique education has prepared you for careers at the cutting edge of innovation. This is both good news and bad news. It’s good news because you’re probably going to find a job, it will pay well, and it will be intellectually fulfilling. It’s bad news because whatever you thought you were training for when you started this exercise might not actually exist anymore. Five years ago, when you guys were deciding where to go to college, there were very few mobile-app developers or big-data architects, and there certainly weren’t any chief listening officers for social media outlets. It’s hard to imagine where the next five years will go, but it’s kind of fun to do so. Will there be a Borg-esque integration of biology and technology, or self-driving cars that get rid of traffic congestion? Who knows, but you guys are going to be among the people that are actually making it happen. And it’ll be awesome, as long as you’re willing to take some risks and step outside of your comfort zone. When an opportunity arises, take it.”
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Doctor and writer
“Ultimately, it turns out we all have an intrinsic need to pursue purposes larger than ourselves, purposes worth making sacrifices for. People often say, ‘Find your passion.’ But there’s more to it than that. Not all passions are enough. Just existing for your desires feels empty and insufficient, because our desires are fleeting and insatiable. You need a loyalty. The only way life is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. And that is the best part of what college has allowed you to do. College made it easy. It gave you an automatic place in the world where you could feel part of something greater. The supposedly ‘real world’ you are joining does not. ...
“One thing I came to realize after college was that the search for purpose is really a search for a place, not an idea. It is a search for a location in the world where you want to be part of making things better for others in your own small way. It could be a classroom where you teach, a business where you work, a neighborhood where you live. The key is, if you find yourself in a place where you stop caring - where your greatest concern becomes only you - get out of there.”
Actor and comedian
“I’m a guy whose primary connection to this venerable institution is having portrayed a rather hard-to-like Cornell alum on the NBC television show ‘The Office.’ It’s interesting, Condoleezza Rice backed out of speaking at Rutgers this year because students protested over her controversial role in the Iraq War. Meanwhile, I directly embarrassed this school for eight years on national television, and no protests. When I got the invitation to speak, I was scared to open the email because I thought it might be a lawsuit. ...
“Please, remember to be a fool. Sounds crazy - a fool is by definition a person who lacks good sense or judgment. But I’m here to tell you that good sense and judgment are highly overrated. Wisdom is too often just a fancy word for cynicism. And foolishness is a condescending word for joy, wonder and curiosity. George Bernard Shaw said, ‘A man learns to skate by staggering about and making a fool of himself. Indeed, he progresses in all things by resolutely making a fool of himself.’ I couldn’t agree more. Turns out, the world provides us with virtually infinite opportunities to be a fool.”
Actor and writer
“I am a lucky person. Of the roughly 100 million babies born worldwide in 1967, I was lucky enough to be born into the wealthiest country. Born to educated, healthy parents. To parents who had not only gone to two of the great colleges in the world, but who intended, or at least hoped, for their children to do the same. To parents who had books in their home. There’s a very good chance that many of you come from similar backgrounds. You drew a lucky card in life. That’s not to embarrass you or to diminish how hard you’ve worked or how much you’ve learned these past four years. That’s simply to state a fact. Many of us - most of us - come from an exclusive club. That doesn’t mean we’re more worthy. It means we’re more lucky. This exclusive club is only becoming more exclusive as incomes and opportunity at the top of our society expand, and incomes and opportunity at the bottom contract. For those of you who didn’t come from privileged backgrounds ... let me tell you how much I admire you. You have bested long odds to be here today, long odds which I never faced. But you, too, have now entered an exclusive club, graduates of one of the great universities of the world. And with that privilege, you have responsibility, all of you do. Do not shut the door behind you. Each of you has a responsibility to turn around, give someone else a hand up, up the stairs and through the door.”
Congressman and civil rights leader
“I saw those signs that said ‘white men,’ ‘colored men,’ ‘white women,’ ‘colored women,’ ‘white waiting,’ ‘colored waiting.’ I would come home and ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, ‘Why?’ They would say: ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble. ...’
“In 1957, I met Rosa Parks at the age of 17. In 1958, at the age of 18, I met Martin Luther King Jr., and these two individuals inspired me to get in the way, to get in trouble. So I come here to say to you this morning, on this beautiful campus, with your great education, you must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble - good trouble, necessary trouble.”
New York University
Janet L. Yellen
Federal Reserve chairwoman
“There is an unfortunate myth that success is mainly determined by something called ‘ability.’ But research indicates that our best measures of these qualities are unreliable predictors of performance in academics or employment. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth says that what really matters is a quality she calls ‘grit’ - an abiding commitment to work hard toward long-range goals and to persevere through the setbacks that come along the way. One aspect of grit that I think is particularly important is the willingness to take a stand when circumstances demand it. Such circumstances may not be all that frequent, but in every life, there will be crucial moments when having the courage to stand up for what you believe will be immensely important.”
Richard W. Fisher
President and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
“Our mother would say, ‘Never let your brains go to your head.’ The pun is horrific, but the message is profound: To achieve success, you will need to keep your superb education and your considerable talent in perspective. Brains and the gift of talent are necessary, but they are insufficient for success in life. Time and again, in business and universities and government, we see instances in which women and men of towering intellect get far at first, but ultimately snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They do so because they have forgotten to develop their emotional quotient with the same devotion they applied to developing their intelligence quotient. My heartfelt advice to you is to work as hard on expanding your EQ as you have on harnessing your IQ.”
Co-founder of Reddit
“It’s OK to not really know what you’re doing, and just trust your gut. Make the best judgment you can. There’s not going to be a syllabus assigned to you. It’s going to be using whatever knowledge you’ve gained, whatever resources you have, to just figure it out, to just hack it. I mean, most of the time, I still don’t know what I’m doing ...
“You are going to figure it out, and failure is going to be part of the process. You’re all here because you’re good at not failing, right? This is the culmination of doing a great job at not failing. There are no GPAs after this. There’s going to be lots of setbacks. There’s going to be lots of failures. No one introduces me as the founder of My Mobile Menu, also known as Mmm, because that was our first company. Before we started Reddit, Steve and I started that, and for a year and a half worked on something that went nowhere. But that’s OK. Failure is an option.”