Kimbrough: Choosing right commencement speaker can be risky


Walter M. Kimbrough is an executive in residence at the University of Southern California. This was first published via The Conversation.

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 school’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 Still others, such as Xavier University of Louisiana, have rescinded invitations to commencement speakers deemed too controversial.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 the 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 universitywide committee that 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.

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 I was president of Dillard University — a small, historically Black, private liberal arts college 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 Gov. 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 its 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 university 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 commencement 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.

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.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

Members and subscribers make this story possible.
You can help support non-partisan, community journalism.