A degree of banality at graduation


May 22, 2007|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun reporter

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.

FOR THE RECORD - 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

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?

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