Grading the Graduation Speeches
Written by Bwog Staff
For most of our readers, the graduation ceremonies have finished, and after watching all the webcasts, we still can’t tell them apart. They all have graduates throwing things/falling asleep/not paying attention, administrators reminding said graduates about the opportunities that await them, and lots of light blue and school pride. The one area that does have the potential to make a ceremony slightly worth your time (besides the diploma, of course, and the post-ceremony family gifts) is the speech. But did this year’s selection make people perk up their ears, or drop their heads? (photo from acordova on Flickr)
SEAS Class Day – James Albaugh, Executive Vice-President, Boeing: Allbaugh started off nonchalantly, joking about the absence of the West End, and his lack of academic success while at Columbia (Albaugh recieved a master’s from the engineering school in 1974). The first half of the speech focused on the problems Albaugh felt faced the new generation of engineers, including global warming, and he bemoaned how the United States is failing to keep pace in science education. The second half of the speech, however, could have been given to a new group of Boeing employees, as Albaugh moved through pieces of advice for anyone seeking a career in engineering. He even drew advice from how people become a “friend of Jim” at Boeing, and closed with a quote from a newspaper article about the first cross-country flight of a Boeing 707. In giving a thoroughly practical speech, Albaugh too often sounded like he was reading from a corporate memo. Grade: B-
Barnard College – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: The Barnard graduates greeted Clinton with a standing ovation, and she largely delivered. Noting that women are “reaching levels of achievement not seen before” (including a joke about Preakness-winning Rachel Alexandra), Clinton began with a short yet humorous retelling of Barnard’s early years, including a Times headline “College Girls Are Healthy, Normal American Girls.” The heart of her speech, though, focused on the “new era of diplomacy,” which “requires a new commitment to global service.” In particular, she urged the graduates to “support women worldwide who don’t have the resources you do, but whose lives and dreams are just as worthy as yours and mine.” She closed by reminding graduates that their generation had a “a future that women in the history of the world have never been able to imagine, that you leave here empowered in a way that women and girls have never been before.” Evocative without being overly dramatic, Clinton once again showed why she was such a powerful opponent for Obama. Grade: A-.
GS – Philipe Reines, Clinton senior adviser: Reines began with several jokes, including how he hid his speaking engagement from Clinton, and a ribbing of PrezBo for the “low-profile” nature of the Ahmadinejad visit. The speech, though, became his biography, as he chronicled his path through several different schools, being Al Gore’s TA, and assisting Hillary Clinton. His point was to debunk various bits of conventional wisdom, like “don’t let people see you sweat” and “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” but Reines meandered, and rarely brought the focus back to the graduates, except to say that they were probably like him in their “wandering” backgrounds. It was, however, shorter than the other speeches, which kept the schtick from wearing too thinly. Grade: B-
CC – Attorney General Eric Holder: Holder started with the right amount of Columbia history, including his wacky roomates in Carman and his participation in the occupation that led to the creation of the Malcolm X Lounge. Acknowledging “that tomorrow will be the last day that some of you spend on an academic campus as a student,” and that “you may never sit through another lecture or pull another all-nighter, fueled by nothing but caffeine and fear,” he urged graduates to be “a servant for the public good.” “The people who truly deserve our respect,” he declared, the people who work hard and play by the rules – who teach our children, who minister to us when we are ill, who go to work every day in search of a better life – these people are too often ignored. Make sure they are recognized and find ways to help them.” He concluded with various exhortations to help the “greater good,” and a quote from Tennyson. It was a conventional speech, but well-balanced speech, with one interesting sidenote: One of Holder’s first anecdotes, about a roomate who enjoyed “altering his consciousness,” does not appear in the trascript on the Attorney General’s website. Grade: B+
Commencement – Lee C. Bollinger: PrezBo began by recalling fondly how people gathered on Low Steps (“Columbia’s town square”) for both the presidential forum and the inauguration. The main focus was on freedom of speech, though why he chose the topic went unexplained. The Journalism School graduates particularly enjoyed this subject, roaring several times during his speech. Bollinger constructed a historical frame for his talk, connecting freedom of press and expression to the effectiveness of government. The speech began to sound like one given at a Washington dinner party, especially as he entailed specific proposals for increasing freedom in the global marketplace of ideas. Bollinger also bemoaned the end of print media as the death knell for serious journalism, a curious contrast to the rest of the speech’s comfort with historical inevitabilities. Grade: B