Opinion: Speaking up for the low-profile commencement speaker

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High-profile college commencement speakers are under siege this year. One faced a protest for being an alleged imperialist exploiter of Third World nations. Another was accused of sanctioning torture. A third was criticized for his role in breaking up an Occupy demonstration. All three canceled their speeches.

Sometimes there’s a good reason to protest. My alma mater, Wellesley College, made a terrible mistake in 1990 when it invited Barbara Bush to speak. It was inappropriate for a woman who had dropped out of college to get married to be the headliner of a ceremony celebrating women who were graduating.

Not only are big-name speakers controversial, but many of them aren’t particularly good speakers. I’ve heard a few of those too.


But this week, as I attended my niece’s graduation from New York University’s Steinhardt School, it occurred to me that there is another way. In the cool comfort of Radio City Music Hall, the key address was delivered by one of the school’s professors, Okhee Lee, a woman with a humble demeanor who had devoted her life to studying education. She wasn’t famous, and her speech was far from grand. Rather, it was personal and intimate, life-sized. And inspiring.

(The ceremony for the entire university was at Yankee Stadium and featured Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, who delivered a speech with the well-worn message that graduates would fail at times and it was the reaction to failure that mattered more than success.)

Lee spoke about her efforts, growing up in South Korea, to gain an education, only to be told she had two options: to marry or to work and be “an old maid.”

“So I created a third choice,” she said. “I left.”

She spoke of the deep lesson she drew from the announcement on the plane during her lonely, intimidating flight to the United States: In the event of emergency, first put on your own oxygen mask, and then help your neighbor. And she recounted how she had applied that lesson in her own life.

There’s something to be said for those who don’t charge $35,000 speakers’ fees — that’s what Condoleezza Rice was going to get before she backed out of her commencement address at Rutgers — and for those who aren’t celebrities either. It’s refreshing to hear from good (not necessarily astounding) role models who have nothing to pitch and no legacy to defend, but have something worthwhile to say.

The audience responded to the professor’s every phrase; by turns, they chuckled, and at times many were in tears. In the end, everyone seemed thrilled with the ceremony. The Rockettes weren’t there, but the faculty made up for it by ending the celebration with chorus-line kicks to “New York, New York” while wearing their full academic regalia.