Wake Forest students and alumni are correct in challenging university commencement speaker selection

Some recent graduates of my alma mater, Wake Forest University, are up in arms over this year’s commencement speaker, former DISH Network chairman Charlie Ergen. They penned what struck me as a thoughtful, well-considered letter to university president Dr. Nathan Hatch, in which they chastised him for a pattern of pandering to business interests to the exclusion of those who have made their marks in other fields.

The May 23 letter, published in the May 29 issues of the Old Gold & Black, takes a passing shot at Ergen’s speech (“riddled with clichés and reductive statements, as well as addressed primarily to his graduating daughter, rather than the class of a thousand newly-minted alumni”), but quickly moves on to the substance of their objection. Noting that the last three commencement speakers have hailed from the business world, the alums write that:

In its ideal form, a liberal arts education nurtures students who will one day become writers, policy-makers, doctors, musicians, artists, leaders, and thinkers. It encourages us to be Renaissance men and women, to change the world through our thoughts and actions. One of the avenues to pursue this change is through business, but this is surely not the only path available to liberal arts graduates, and surely not the only measure of success.

We ask that Wake Forest invite Commencement speakers who promote such values. Where are the journalists and educators, the politicians and diplomats, scientists and actors? In the past, Wake Forest has invited speakers such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and novelist Tom Clancy, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau and New York Times columnist David Brooks. We should aspire for such diversity in our Commencement speakers, for diversity of opinion and background is the very core of a stimulating college experience.

It is true that Wake Forest has a successful Business School – this does not mean that all of our commencement speakers should be tailored to that audience. Three CEOs in succession simply excludes a large proportion of the student body, and sends a clarion message that the other disciplines represented on the Wake Forest campus are not entitled to a voice at graduation, the most important symbolic day on the academic calendar.

The OG&B editorial staff was even less forgiving.

His speech ignored the illustrious words of the great thinkers and scholars students have read during their four years at Wake and chose instead to focus on the esteemed wisdom of Dr. Seuss, Curious George, Matilda, and The Runaway Bunny. Not that there is no knowledge to be found in children’s books – we learned much from the late, great Maurice Sendak – but a Commencement address is hardly the place for them. Where was the dedication to Pro Humanitate? Where was the emphasis on the liberal arts that defines this university (or used to, anyway)?

We can do better than this. We can be better than this. The university deserves reassurance from President Hatch that this won’t happen again. We therefore call upon President Hatch to directly involve students, faculty, and administrators from all areas in determining next year’s graduation speaker. We call upon President Hatch to clearly outline by the time students return in August how that speaker will be chosen next year. Our graduates work extraordinarily hard for four years to be able to walk across that stage at Commencement. At the very least, they deserve a speech addressed to them, at an intellectual level worthy of a top university.

Not that I necessarily share the editors’ and letter writers’ regard for all of the former speakers they mention. Trudeau, for sure. That would be fantastic. Bloomberg is probably a decent choice, although hardly an iconic model of pro humanitate (“for humanity,” the school’s motto). Clancy would be entertaining, I suppose, but I’m not sure I regard him as an intellectual heavyweight. Colin Powell? That one is tough. There’s plenty to respect about the man and he has been a model statesman of late, but how can we ever forgive his notorious appearance before the UN, where he demonstrated conclusively that Iraq had WMDs?

David Brooks, though, is someone whose appearance I’d actually boycott. That would be me out front with the picket sign. Brooks is the antithesis of journalism, a sociopathic corporatist sock puppet who’s only going to be caught out telling the truth when cornered like a rat and left with no real options. Even once I allow for the fact that Wake’s culture and history, on balance, lies to the right of center, it must be said that David Brooks is an embarrassment to the enlightened conservative tradition fostered by so many of the gifted professors with whom I was fortunate to study. That the editors and alums saw fit to offer up a high profile anti humanitate foot soldier as some kind of improvement on Ergen does ding their credibility a bit.

In general, though, these critics (the alumni group is headed by 2006 graduate Lakshmi Krishnan and several other Carswell, Graylin and Reynolds scholars) make a very good point. Their sideswipe at Ergen’s remarks is more than fair (read the full text here) – when you slug through Wake’s rigorous curriculum and earn your sheepskin, you really have earned better than what was ultimately a good-natured galumph about “how I became a brazillionaire.” Further, though, Wake Forest is one of America’s premiere national universities, and its business programs, while certainly prominent, are hardly the main, let alone only, reason why. (Full disclosure – the Wake biz school is one of my former clients.)

Granted, it isn’t hard to understand Dr. Hatch’s motivation. Running a big university isn’t cheap, and when you look at Ergen you can perhaps be forgiven for thinking “hmmm, 46th richest guy in America, a proud alum himself, daughter’s graduating – I bet I can get him to pick up the tab for that new dorm we’ve been needing.” Guys who don’t think this way simply do not become presidents of Top 25 national universities. Put me down as hoping that Dr. Hatch did, indeed, wring a few million out of good old Charlie.

Still, on commencement, the one day a year when a university celebrates its accomplishments, its identity, its brand, the day when a new class of graduates carries the flag forth into the world, one must consider the totality of the institution. There is certainly a place for a successful business person to share his or her insights with a graduating class. But the same goes for journalists, physicians, scientists, teachers, attorneys, political and civic leaders, scholars, artists, writers … even athletes and entertainers. They can’t all speak each year, but over the course of a decade we should see a comprehensive picture of a university’s accomplishments represented on stage.

Dr. Hatch is an accomplished scholar and administrator and he must know, better than anyone, that while so many in America seem to regard cold cash as the only logic that matters, that ideology is a false dogma that holds us back collectively as a society and individually as dynamic, innovative citizens of the world. The near-ubiquity of rampant materialism and its attendant affluenza is the reason why institutions like Wake Forest University are so critically important to our culture, for it is our commitment to the lessons of the liberal arts education that points us forward toward an enlightenment that cannot be measured in dollars.

Pro Humanitate, Dr. Hatch. Your alumni are right in calling you on the carpet and the OG&B editors are more than justified in demanding that you articulate a more inclusive process that speaks to the life of the entire Wake Forest community. I look forward to your response, as embodied by your choice of whom to honor with the podium at the 2013 commencement.

3 replies »

  1. I used to work at one of the regional campuses of the University of Pittsburgh, and as the college’s PR guy, I was on the committee to make recommendations about the Commencement speaker (that in itself should tell you something about the philosophy behind the selection process). Over the course of my five years there, the Development Office blatantly shanghaied the selection process so that the speaker was inevitably someone who had some fund-raising potential. It led to some of the absolute worst, driest speeches I have ever heard in my life. Having a lot of money does NOT necessarily make someone a good public speaker (let alone a graduation speaker). That the Development Office was so shameless about it and yet still tried to put on an innocent face–and, in the process, tried to get me to spin gold out of bullshit–is one of the things that made me hate PR.

  2. I only walked for my mother, and i’ve never been forced to sit through a commencement speech that wasn’t some awful iteration of “I went to this school and then I made a lot of money. I promise that you might too, but remember that these were the best days of your life. By the way, I made a lot of money so you should look up to me even though I’m clearly a fucking idiot.”

    I’ve even sat through one by a US Representative that i know and all he did was talk about how much he did for the university.