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Our view: Return graduation focus to students

May 25, 2017 GMT

Graduation ceremonies should get back to basics.

Schools should stop trying to grab the most famous politician or hottest speaker on the circuit and return the focus to where it should be — on the graduates. Then, families can celebrate rather than suffer through yet another controversy.

This year, students at Notre Dame University walked out on Vice President Mike Pence, and graduates at Bethune-Cookman University turned their backs on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Both were controversial to certain student groups — Pence because of his stand on LBGTQ and immigration issues, and DeVos because she equated historically black colleges as successes in school choices, conveniently omitting segregation as the reason the school existed in the first place. Such controversies have become as much a part of the commencement season as the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

It almost appears as if universities and colleges are trying to outdo one another by nabbing famous people to speak. Notre Dame has a tradition of inviting first year presidents and chose Pence this year in place of Trump, but at many schools, the idea is to bring in a speaker who will generate news. If university Y gets an Oscar-winning actor, then college C wants the president.

Even without controversy, the famous speaker gets the attention, rather than the students whose achievement is being celebrated. The purpose of a speaker is to keep it short, offer a few words of wisdom and cede the stage. With a speaker who is more famous than the college, the focus of the day can shift. Few celebrities are as down to earth as Michelle Obama, who spoke — at the request of students — on graduation day at Santa Fe Indian School last year.

David Murray, writing in The New York Times, would like to see colleges cut down on the controversy on graduation day. Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, wrote that graduation day “isn’t the day to sit and listen to a controversial commencement speaker ostensibly invited so that students can learn from someone with whom they disagree. To the contrary, a commencement speaker is basically just there to remind students and parents that they have invested in an important institution, and to give a few encouraging words for graduates heading off into an unknown future.”

Let people celebrate in peace, without becoming part of a protest.

As the Daily Gazette of Schenectady, N.Y., wrote, “Nothing should be allowed to distract from the intended purpose of the ceremony. And that includes bringing in controversial speakers to address graduation ceremonies as a way to generate publicity and attention for the school.”

Fancy graduation speakers are about the college — the institution — on a day that should belong to the young people who have reached a milestone in their lives. Rather than trying to dazzle alumni and others, let students choose a favorite professor or an inspiring person for graduation speaker, the person who is giving sound advice about life after college.

Students should speak, too, of course. The focus in selecting an outside speaker should be celebrating the day, offering a few words of wisdom and not on garnering headlines or setting off a Tweetstorm.

Leave controversy to the university’s keynote lecture series or to student invitations of lightning-rod figures (an Anne Coulter or, back in the day, Jane Fonda). Graduation can return to being a day of celebration, a time to mark student achievement, not chronicle the latest protest.