Graduation Selections Can Speak Well for Colleges


When screenwriter Nora Ephron delivers the graduation address at Wellesley College, Isabelle Barry will be beaming.

The senior class president at the ivy-clad Massachusetts school is not only eager to hear Ephron’s message, but her presence on the dais represents the culmination of a three-year quest by Barry--one that has kept her up late drafting lists of the world’s most important women, posting signs in Wellesley dormitories, and clicking e-mail to friends around the globe.

It is all part of the time-consuming process Barry and other students have had to go through to help choose the school’s 118th commencement speaker.

At colleges across the country, the results of similar exercises are now unfolding as the mortar boards come out and campuses field speakers who will inspire--and in some cases not inspire--another generation of students.


Those giving addresses this year range from President Clinton to Kermit the Frog. Yet the process of selecting speakers is almost as varied as the speakers themselves--and perhaps just as telling about the institutions.

From tiny liberal arts schools to massive state-funded research universities, the search for the perfect speaker can be desperate, circuitous and exhausting. It also reflects on a school’s stature.

“When we announced it to the class, people were so excited,” says Barry, with pride, of the selection of Ephron from 500 other entries. “Everyone is so happy to have her.”

While students play an important part in choosing Wellesley’s speakers, other schools have their own criteria. At Harvard University, for example, world leaders are sought.


Other schools, such as Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., restrict their selection to alumni. The University of Texas in Austin has recently begun to choose its speaker based on a larger commencement theme. (This year’s is 150 years of Texas statehood.) And an increasing number of schools are forgoing any speaker at all; the college or university president usually says a few words before handing out diplomas.

Princeton University in New Jersey, however, is bucking its 250-year tradition of not hosting an outside speaker. Student class co-president Sue Suh explains that at every major anniversary, the school has invited the sitting president--this year Clinton said yes.

The colleges and universities that continue to seek big-name speakers are always on the hunt for alumni ties, historic connections or anything else that might lure a certain personality. Many smaller schools use time to their advantage, booking speakers years in advance.

Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., has a former world leader on its side. Because Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech from the Westminster podium in 1946, the school has been able to attract Harry Truman, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush among others.


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill snagged Nobel poet Seamus Heaney in part because of the school’s Irish ties. Its first professor and many of its early founders were Irish.

Each school also determines its own combination of student, faculty and administrator input into who the graduation speaker will be. At UNC, students sit on a committee with faculty and administrators, who ask what the students’ interests are and try to use alumni ties or other connections to lure a top speaker.

At Wellesley, the students make suggestions and present a list to the college’s president, who invites the speaker. Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., selects speakers from among the honorary degree recipients, which the school’s president chooses from a faculty board’s recommendations.

The speaker search is one that’s filled with folklore. Earl Smith, dean of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, tells of a tense spring a few years back when no speaker had yet been secured. If it hadn’t been for a particularly resourceful class president who called then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole’s office daily, sent “Colby Loves Dole” T-shirts to Washington, and finally begged Dole to come, the class of ’93 could have endured 15 minutes of silence from the podium.


This year, Bill Cosby invited himself to be the commencement speaker at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. While giving a stand-up routine in Easton last year, Cosby announced that anyone in the audience from Lafayette should let the school’s president know that he’d like to speak at graduation.

“Now, with Cosby, you’re never quite sure whether he’s serious or that’s his opening joke,” says Gary Evans, a school vice president. Turned out he was serious, and the trustees were impressed enough with Cosby’s philanthropy and dedication to education that they approved the selection.

All schools, though, are aware of the importance of their speaker or commencement ceremony--whether chosen for message, celebrity status, or commitment to the university. Wellesley’s Barry is an example of just how powerful the effect of a speaker can be. Barry, from Canada, hadn’t even heard of Wellesley before Barbara Bush addressed the class of ’90. Her invitation to speak created such controversy that Barry heard about it on the news.

“When the Wellesley students were interviewed about the controversy, they were so articulate,” she says. “My twin sister and I decided then that that’s where we wanted to go.”