A degree of banality at graduation

The Baltimore Sun

Thanks so much for that round of imaginary applause. Please be seated.

Before we begin, one small request: Kindly turn off your cell phones and Tasers.

Shortly after I was invited to write a few words about Maryland's nondescript crop of college commencement speakers, a number came to my attention: 4,216.

According to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, who unfortunately can't be with us today, that's how many two- and four-year institutions of higher learning there are in this country. I repeat: 4,216.

Oprah Winfrey, Bono and former President Bill Clinton can't possibly be expected to carry that speech-making load by themselves - although Clinton is giving it the old college try. He'll hit at least six commencements - the University of New Hampshire, Middlebury College, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, Harvard University and Knox College - making him the iron man of the 2007 class of pontificators.

It appears we're witnessing the law of oratorical supply and demand at work. There's only so much charisma to go around. Students at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore shouldn't feel dissed because they had to settle for the wit and wisdom of state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

Besides, they're not alone.

Students at Bowie State University are being welcomed to real life by Eastman Kodak executive and alumna Essie Calhoun, Loyola College students by Newsweek magazine editor Jon Meacham, McDaniel College students by David Gergen, the ex-presidential adviser who used to be editor of U.S. News & World Report.

In star-power terms, yes, those names read like the cast of a low-budget horror movie: The Night of the Living Dull.

But our TV-and-Internet culture may be taking a toll on graduation days. Could it be we're running short of people capable of standing up in public and stringing a few sentences together? Consider: The marquee speakers in Maryland this year are music producer Quincy Jones at the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory and cartoonist Garry Trudeau at Goucher College.

Men of few words: one known for trafficking in music, the other in images.

Total recall? Not really

The speaker crunch may seem acute here, but it's being felt nationwide. Think many Duke University students clamored to have their photo taken with commencement speaker G. Richard Wagoner Jr., chairman and CEO of General Motors?

Columbia University landed Samuel Freedman, a respected but below-the-radar journalist who once reported for The New York Times but now teaches. At Columbia University.

And the biggest name Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio, could attract was Michael Bell, the state fire marshal. Owens students would dance in the aisles if Gansler showed up.

On occasions such as this, I flash back to my own college graduation speaker. Not a particularly memorable performance. Actually, it was as if someone read aloud a food label: "Character and riboflavin count ... yada, yada, yada ... many challenges lie ahead ... dextrose, fructose, monosodium glutamate me, baby."

I can't even recall who made that speech. I picture a man with a shock of gray hair. But that could have been my uncle. The day was a blur. Literally. I lost my contact lenses the night before at a keg party.

Point being, '07 graduates, take heart. About as many people remember the name of their college commencement speaker as remember what it cost to rent their goofy-looking cap and gown.

Mike Garibaldi Frick has only the vaguest notion of who spoke at his 1992 graduation from the University of California, Berkeley: some gasbag UC faculty member or administrator.

Frick is the founder of Speakers Platform, a San Francisco booking agency that handles Lance Armstrong, Deepak Chopra and other hired-gun talkers.

The commencement dynamic has changed in the past decade, he says. Schools now must start courting premier names as much as three to five years in advance - unless they're willing to operate through an agent like Frick and pay close to market rate.

"If the school's looking for a brand name that 75 percent of people will recognize," he says, "it will be over $50,000."

Nowadays, the choice of commencement speaker often is about more than "just the students," he adds. It's intended to impress parents and alumni, and to boost a school's image and fundraising potential.

The buzz factor

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that last year the University of Oklahoma paid Katie Couric $115,000 to wax poetic. A few years before that, tiny Thiel College in Pennsylvania dished out far less to get political commentator George Will - but dish it did. Former Thiel President Lance Masters considered that money well-spent.

"It's the brand-name phenomenon," he says. "This is part of world-class 'edu-tainment.'"

Go for it, Lance. What's next in edu-tainment? Slot machines in the library?

Be thankful Maryland colleges and universities haven't fallen under the spell of edu-tainment. It doesn't fit this state's style. Marylanders tend to be practical, no-frills folks.

They're also cheap. And, with graduation speakers, you get what you don't pay for: Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Coppin State University; Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, Towson University School of Education; Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Mount St. Mary's College.

Money may talk, but inside-track connections whisper pretty loudly. Jeffrey Sharkey (he has no clue who spoke at his 1986 graduation from Manhattan School of Music) is director of the Peabody Institute. He says the school was "incredibly fortunate" to bag Quincy Jones.

And incredibly wired. Peabody professor Hollis Robbins co-edited a book with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who teaches at Harvard and was instrumental in establishing its Quincy Jones Professorship of African-American Music.

Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, chair of the Johns Hopkins University's board of trustees, personally put the commencement squeeze on Brian Billick, according to the Ravens coach.

The pipeline was more direct at Towson University, where Schuerholz (whose donation paid for the campus baseball stadium that bears his name) and fellow commencement speakers Ed Hale, founder of 1st Mariner Bank, and public relations executive Phyllis Brotman are active alumni.

"The buzz factor isn't critical. We're definitely looking for someone who's made a contribution to the university," says Carol Vellucci, assistant to the president for communications and a Case Western Reserve alumna circa "the '70s" who might be able to name her college graduation speaker in a multiple-choice test.

Towson's commencement-speaker philosophy has imbued its students with a certain stoicism that should serve them well in the outside world: Never underestimate the power of low expectations.

"I've never heard anybody say, 'I'm excited about graduation,'" says Sharon Leff, editor in chief of the Towerlight student newspaper. "I haven't heard any complaints, either. They expect it to be the typical ceremony."

The selection of House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer to deliver the commencement address at the University of Maryland, College Park on Sunday had "typical ceremony" written all over it. But school administrators didn't make that call. The decision was largely in the hands of senior Jesse Fox, who had been appointed commencement speaker chair.

Last fall, Fox spent several months collecting speaker suggestions from students. Paris Hilton's name came up. He gave it some buzz-factor thought. Likewise U2's Bono, who has legitimate humanitarian credentials and whom Mike Garibaldi Frick of Speakers Platform finds on almost every school's hot list.

In the end, Fox went with Hoyer: "He was kind of like a slam-dunk opportunity. He's an alumnus. He's successful. He really liked his time here. He's probably the most powerful person who ever graduated from the university."

He's also generally accustomed to anesthetizing audiences on C-SPAN. But Hoyer, who double-dipped at St. Mary's College's commencement, got his groove on and sweetened his messages with pop-culture allusions, citing the rags-to-riches miracle of Google and quoting Bob Dylan lyrics.

I'd hoped the majority leader would stand tall at the lectern and expound upon the deeper meaning of "Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed." Instead, he opted for a tamer blowin'-in-the-wind Dylan riff.

In 2006, politicians handled about a third of the commencement-speech chores at the top 100 colleges. Fox knew he couldn't realistically aim higher than Hoyer. The big-dog presidential candidates prefer to pick up their honorary degrees in battlefield states.

Thus, Rudolph W. Giuliani made a pit stop in South Carolina at The Citadel. Hillary Rodham Clinton surfaced at Wilberforce University, a small, traditionally black college in Ohio. Barack Obama touched down at Southern New Hampshire University.

An apolitical spin

The commencement strategizing seems fodder for a Doonesbury comic strip. Anna Lehnen, a senior English major at Goucher, is pleased Garry Trudeau will be doing the apolitical honors at her school Friday.

"He should be hilarious," she says, while noting there has been "a bit of concern" that some students might not readily know who Trudeau is. An information blitz in the form of posters and Web bulletins is under way to get them up to speed.

Last year, Harry Shearer, a Saturday Night Live alumnus, spoke at Goucher's graduation. Similar concerns were raised about his name recognition. Shearer voices several characters on The Simpsons, including Mr. Burns and Waylon Smithers.

He did most of his speech in character.

"He hit it out of the park," says Kristen Keener, Goucher's director of media relations.

Shearer's speech became their first commencement podcast.

He didn't get paid a dime. But he was funny. Perhaps memorable. Absolutely not edu-tainment.

There may be a life lesson in that. Go with the commencement-speech flow, no matter who's talking. Laugh when the mood strikes. Cry if the words move you. Work on your tan if the speaker's a bore.

Only sweat the really important stuff: Like how to look cool in that goofy cap and gown.


The last word on speeches

A greatest hits collection of graduation speeches is available at humanity.org/voices/commencements. It features pearls of wisdom bestowed by the likes of filmmaker Ken Burns, The New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman and Russell Baker, rock star Bono, author Toni Morrison and President John F. Kennedy.

The podcast of satirist Harry Shearer's May 2006 commencement address at Goucher College can be heard at goucher.edu/x11938.xml.

If you just can't get enough profundity, pick up the book Graduation Day: The Best of America's Commencement Speeches. Contributors include actress Jodie Foster and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

An article yesterday in the Today section about commencement speakers misstated Edwin F. Hale Sr.'s and Phyllis Brotman's connection to Towson University. Both have honorary degrees. They are not Towson graduates. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR
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