The cat’s out of the bag: We won’t have a commencement speaker at the class of 2017’s graduation ceremony. The University of Michigan, once again, has bucked concerns that students who were part of the Bicentennial Commencement Student Advisory Committee raised. Personally, I’m a little frustrated about how much outrage this has caused in comparison to more pressing social issues in our community, such as the Ann Arbor Police Department’s killing of Aura Rosser in 2014. But, I do understand that having a commencement speaker is important to a lot of people, so I think it’s worth reflecting on what we would want from a commencement speaker. Like a missing jigsaw piece, it’s often easiest to appreciate the ideal qualities of something when you don’t have it.
The best commencement addresses I’ve heard offer us words of wisdom. As I’ve written in the past, I think one of the University’s great pedagogical weaknesses is that there isn’t enough of a focus on creating a personal ethos, a code to live by. A speaker could partially rectify this problem. In David Foster Wallace’s famous speech “This is Water,” he extols the importance of empathy. Wallace is acutely aware of how a cynic could easily reduce this to a bromide, remarking, “Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.”
But his telling of a story makes the lesson meaningful. We need someone who can tie together our four years of education, who can show us how to be as compassionate people, who has led by example, who can show us to do the same. Essentially, to me, a great speaker would give us guidance on what it really means to be the Leaders and the Best.
Secondly, the speech should be uncontroversial. I don’t subscribe to the belief that inviting someone to give a speech is an endorsement of their views and finding someone who is totally uncontroversial has become increasingly difficult. Just ask the Dalai Lama, who was protested by students at University of California at San Diego after being invited as its commencement speaker.
Last year, the University chose to bring Michael Bloomberg, who, while I don’t agree with all his political views, I thought was an admirable choice. However, many students were upset after Bloomberg delivered his address. We could reduce his speech to a truism about engaging with people who disagree with you. But just like David Foster Wallace, the devil is in the details. He chose to deliver his message by attacking student activists who have the noble goal of trying to help make marginalized students feel more comfortable at our University. It’s important to critically discuss the methods they’ve used to achieve that goal, but I wonder if commencement is the right place for that. We deserve a speech which makes all students feel included.
The speech should also address what it means for us to be graduating, right here, right now. What do 200 years of excellence from the University mean? We’re graduating into a world that is increasingly fractured along lines of race, class, geography, nation and culture. The list goes on. I appreciate that it may be difficult to balance these last two goals, but I think with careful deliberation, it’s possible. Recently, University President Mark Schlissel co-authored an op-ed about the importance of continuing to attract international scholars in our current political climate. We don’t need a polemic, but advice on how we, as global citizens, can navigate this fractious world.
Lastly, the University’s bicentennial should be a celebration of 200 years of excellence. Let’s be frank: This is likely a major fundraising opportunity for the University by building a connection to its alumni. But I feel that the administration swung too far in that direction. Our commencement may be part of a larger ceremony, but it’s still our commencement! The University could have picked an alum to give our commencement speech, which would have allowed the administration to celebrate the bicentennial without sacrificing the address.
Truth be told, I don’t have anyone particular in mind, and I doubt that the University will change course this late into the process. But I think at the very least, we should all do some reflecting on what the past four years have meant to us.
Roland Davidson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.