As grads wait to celebrate, politicians, journalists deliver weighty speeches


In the beginning, there was Winston S. Churchill. War hero. British prime minister. Bulwark of democracy. Writer. Painter. Very Big Man on Campus.

It was not even a commencement address. But Churchill's 1946 speech to little Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., warning of the "iron curtain" of Soviet dominance, set a challenge that campus administrators have scrambled to meet ever since, particularly at graduation: securing well-known speakers whose words are filled with weighty meaning. This weekend marks the height of the commencement season, with heavy traffic spanning the length of Interstate 95 along the Eastern seaboard and station wagons rumbling toward Maryland's campuses.

To many administrators, prominent speakers lend solemnity and status to the occasion and the campus -- and offer the chance to reward a powerful or wealthy friend.

To many students, those same speakers stand between them and celebration.

"By the time kids are graduating from here, they really couldn't care less who's speaking," said Bill Shear, a sophomore at the Johns Hopkins University, where U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski will deliver the university's primary commencement address Thursday. "I think the graduation ceremonies are much nicer for friends and family members than for students themselves. They're talking about how they've finished their finals.

"Preakness is this weekend," Mr. Shear said. "I've heard a lot more people talking about that than graduation."

Without question, the most frequent speakers at commencement exercises are politicians, whom Americans trust relatively little, according to polls. The next most popular speakers are journalists -- who, as a group, are admired even less than politicians.

It is as though there are no eloquent architects, composers and physicians in our society. The mania for politicians and journalists does not make sense even to the people who represent the most sought-after speakers.

"There's really no rhyme or reason to why people want to invite other people," said Alan Walker, president of the Program Corp. of America in White Plains, N.Y.

Nationally, requests pour in for syndicated columnist George F. Will, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell and PBS newswoman Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first two black students to attend the University of Georgia. Ms. Hunter-Gault has 22 honorary doctoral degrees from colleges at which she has delivered commencement addresses, said Mr. Walker, who represents her. (College campuses usually do not offer much money to popular commencement speakers, whose normal fees can reach as high as $60,000 per speech. Instead, they tend to confer honorary degrees.)

For administrators and students who care, celebrity usually takes precedence, Mr. Walker and several of his colleagues said.

At Duke University three years ago, the student newspaper complained that the commencement speaker, children's rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, was insufficiently famous in comparison to past ones such as Mr. Will or NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw.

University of Baltimore officials said law school Dean John Sebert has made a conscientious effort to get nationally recognized leaders to speak on campus -- at least in part because it can help to raise the school's profile.

Because of her friendship with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ms. Edelman's advocacy has gained heightened publicity, and she has been asked to give many more addresses in the past three years -- including at UB's law school.

While there is a smattering of other kinds of speakers in Maryland, including military figures and business entrepreneurs -- Loyola College, for example, boasts as its speaker Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who is not coincidentally the chairman of its board of trustees -- those people are far outweighed by faces well worn on the nation's television screens.

To poet Mark Strand, that betrays a lack of imagination.

"We're a nation of anti-intellectuals," said Mr. Strand, a former U.S. poet laureate who is now on the faculty of Hopkins' writing program. "Serious thinking is not rewarded in our society."

That's why you'll see All-Stars from C-SPAN dotting the campus landscape this month and next in Maryland and around the nation, said Mr. Strand, who will deliver remarks at the Maryland Institute, College of Art's ceremony Monday.

"Schools feel the precariousness of their enterprise in a world that increasingly honors stupidity," he said. "They curry the favor of politicians to help save a place for themselves."

But some campus officials defend their selections. Goucher President Judy Jolley Mohraz said that D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the college's speaker at ceremonies yesterday, "represents the engagement and the leadership in civic FTC discourse that we expect among our graduates."

And Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said his school's president, William C. Richardson, asked Senator Mikulski to speak because of her long-standing support for higher education and research funding. "She's a good friend of education, she's a good friend of this university, and it's a particularly good time, because she has both a nephew and a niece graduating from this class," he said.

Pity the speech-writers in all this puff and pageantry. They have to pen the words that delay the students' payoff: the diploma, the hugs with friends and families, the departure from campus in rented vans.

"I would prefer to address the Jiffy Lube convention than write a commencement speech," said a Maryland speech-writer who asked not to be identified. "Your mind is immediately filled with all the cliches you know you can't use. You know, 'Forge ahead.' "

"What are you going to say to these kids?" asked Liz Pettingill, a former speech-writer to Ms. Mikulski and Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. "This is their last day of school and they're dying to get out of there. They know what you're going to say: 'You're on the brink of a new life; don't forget to be yourself; don't be afraid to take chances.' "

In his 1992 book "Lend Me Your Ears," New York Times columnist William Safire, a one-time speech-writer for President Richard Nixon, included a June 1984 speech to the senior class of Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., by then-New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. In it, Mr. Cuomo recalled the advice of the president of his alma mater, St. John's College in Queens, N.Y.

"Commencement speakers," Mr. Cuomo quoted the college president as saying, "should think of themselves as the body at an old-fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much."

Sometimes, it takes literally no words at all to win approval.

At Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., the veteran broadcast journalist and Harvard professor Marvin Kalb was scheduled to give the send-off to the commencement crowd in 1988. But he called the night before, begging to cancel, because his notoriously bad back had once again given out.

Rhodes' President James Daughdrill walked to the podium tentatively to tell students and their families that Mr. Kalb would not be speaking. The feared groans never materialized -- instead, applause washed over the audience.

"It really had nothing to do with him," Rhodes spokeswoman Helen Norman said. "People were happy with Marvin Kalb. It's just that these ceremonies do go on and on. They were thrilled that 20 minutes or so would be shaved."

Since that day, Rhodes College has not had an outside speaker at commencement. "Our feeling has been that the focus should be on the students," Ms. Norman said. "It's worked out very well."


May 13 -- St. Mary's College: Former U.S. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley.

May 13 -- Frostburg State University: Five honorary degree recipients each delivered brief remarks.

May 14 -- Mount St. Mary's College: Agnes McGlade Berenato, head women's basketball coach, Georgia Institute of Technology.

May 18 -- Baltimore Hebrew University: Harvey M. Meyerhoff, Baltimore philanthropist.

May 19 -- Goucher College: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., nonvoting congressional representative.

May 19 -- University of Maryland at Baltimore: Donna E. Shalala, U.S. secretary of health and human services.

May 19 -- University of Maryland College Park: Carl T. Rowan, syndicated columnist.

L May 20 -- Bowie State University: Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

May 20 -- Hood College: ABC News journalist Cokie Roberts.

May 20 -- Loyola College: Baltimore Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos.

May 20 -- Salisbury State University: Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mary Willis.

May 20 -- Western Maryland College: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

May 21 -- Washington College: Mr. Glendening.

May 21 -- Coppin State College: Jean Tucker-Mann, director of human resources, Community Building in Partnership Inc.

May 21 -- Morgan State University: Assistant U.S. Energy Secretary Corliss Moody.

May 21 -- St. John's College: Brother Robert Smith, retired St. John's tutor.

May 21 -- University of Baltimore: Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, for law school; Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Champ McCulloch for schools of business and arts.

May 21 -- University of Maryland Eastern Shore: Dr. Yvonne Freeman, associate administrator for equal opportunity, National Aeronautics and Space Agency.

May 22 -- Maryland Institute, College of Art: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand.

May 24 -- University of Maryland Baltimore County: Edward McCreaken, president of Silicon Graphics Inc.

May 25 -- Johns Hopkins University: U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.; also, School of Arts & Sciences, ABC News journalist Ted Koppel.

May 27 -- College of Notre Dame of Maryland: Four honorary degree recipients will each deliver brief remarks.

May 28 -- Towson State University: Former Chancellor D. Bruce Johnstone of the State University of New York system.

May 31 -- U.S. Naval Academy: Secretary of the Navy John Dalton.

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