Goucher among colleges eschewing the usual in favor of lighter commencement speeches

An orator less chosen

May 26, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

Students earning diplomas from Maryland's colleges and universities this year are being sent off into the world with words of wisdom from the state's retiring U.S. senator, a congressman running to replace him, the director of the National Institutes of Health, the host of a nationally televised political roundtable and the vice president of the United States.

Members of Goucher College's Class of 2006, however, will be treated today to insights from the bass player of Spinal Tap.

The featured speaker is comedian, actor and author Harry Shearer, perhaps best known as the voices of malevolent business executive C. Montgomery Burns and his geeky, yes-man assistant, Waylon Smithers, on The Simpsons.

He will appear on the Towson campus two years after the college's president interviewed children's author and illustrator Maurice Sendak in lieu of a traditional commencement address, and a decade after an impromptu graduation day singalong with television's kindly Mr. Rogers.

It wasn't always this way at Goucher. But the school is by no means the first institution to take a lighter approach to the sometimes-stodgy affair of college commencement. Tom Hanks, Jon Stewart, Billy Joel and Goldie Hawn have addressed new graduates in recent years.

And veteran funnyman Bill Cosby is a regular this time of year on college campuses, having spoken at at least 19 graduations, including those at Goucher, the University of Maryland, College Park and the Johns Hopkins University.

"It's an experience for the people who do it. It's a change of pace, and oftentimes they're rewarded with an honorary degree," said Jason M. Breslow, who maintains a database of college graduation speakers for The Chronicle of Higher Education. "For the university, it's great for them, because it brings attention to them. And I think it's probably fun for the students, as well."

For Shearer, today's commencement provides an opportunity to address an audience that grew up with The Simpsons and which some educators predicted would be corrupted by the cartoon.

"These," he quipped, "are my children."

"There are those in the political universe who use commencement addresses as kind of a warm-up to a political campaign, and students might feel justified in being less than delighted at being used as props or extras in that particular show," Shearer said in a telephone interview this week. "This day is about them, it's not about me. ... I'm not running for anything."

Other less-than-traditional speakers who have made graduation day stops at Goucher, a small liberal arts college, include William Sanford Nye, a comedian-scientist who starred in Bill Nye the Science Guy, political satirist Mark Russell and Jim Lehrer, a television anchor and moderator of presidential debates who shared the stage with his wife, novelist Kate Staples Lehrer.

Founded in 1885 as the Woman's College of Baltimore, Goucher was renamed for its founder, the Rev. John Franklin Goucher, in 1910 and began admitting men in 1986.

For the first 60 years or so of the college's existence, graduation speakers were almost always religious leaders or, more often, presidents of other academic institutions, according to a list compiled by Goucher. In the decades since, those addressing Goucher's graduates have included U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Coretta Scott King and anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Choosing a commencement speaker can be tricky.

Just ask William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. He presided over two commencements a year for a decade as president of the College Park campus and four such ceremonies each year during four years as president of Ohio State University.

"It's a difficult thing for campuses because, you know, you want to get someone who's meaningful to the students with name recognition who can say something that will get their attention but not take themselves too seriously and show some humor - all in 10 or 15 minutes," he said, laughing. "It's a lot of work."

Goucher President Sanford J. Ungar, a former National Public Radio host, said he welcomes the view that the college strays off the beaten path for its commencement speakers.

"We sometimes have politician speakers," he said, "but we do try to not have the most predictable speakers. We really try to find people who will have not just a meaningful message but will be recognizable to the graduating students."

For Shearer, the invitation to speak at Goucher came "out of the blue."

"I didn't get a real doctorate ... and I haven't gotten an Emmy or a Grammy, so anything that resembles an award or honor is gratefully accepted," he joked.

A native of Los Angeles, Shearer graduated in 1964 from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in political science and took a job teaching high school English and social studies in Compton, Calif.

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