At commencement, the stars come out


May 30, 2004|By Nara Schoenberg | Nara Schoenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Move over, lieutenant governors. Make way for Bono, Tony Danza and Big Bird.

As this year's graduates go forth into the real world, their commencement speakers are increasingly celebrities and entertainers, rather than the relatively staid public officials who were a staple of ceremonies in the '60s and '70s.

This year Bono spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, performer Tony Danza addressed the University of Dubuque, West Wing actor Bradley Whitford spoke at the University of Wisconsin, and Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney spoke at Villanova University.

"It wasn't nearly as common for entertainment figures" to address graduates in the 1970s, says Brian Palmer, president of the National Speakers Bureau in Libertyville, Ill.

Some decry the trend. Student journalists at New York University, who heard from Alec Baldwin in recent years, editorialized that "NYU students would rather listen to an interesting academic than a famous name any day."

But others take a more balanced view.

"Commencement ceremonies at many universities are very long, and when on top of that you bring in a speaker who wants to speak for 45 minutes about a world issue, it may just be the wrong place for that," says Steven Tepper, deputy director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University.

Schools, meanwhile, are under increasing pressure not to offend their finicky commencement audiences.

"Colleges have become more competitive for students, for research money, and so anything that's going to embarrass the university probably isn't [viewed as] good," says Hilary Levey, a Princeton grad student researching trends in commencement speakers.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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