Friday, May 30, 2008

Commencement Banalities

By Richard Vedder

I think commencement should be a relatively big deal, even if it is only a ceremony. It is an opportunity for universities to display what they are all about amidst a celebration of accomplishment. This requires a good commencement speaker.

My university, Ohio University, selected a relatively unkown writer from Sports Illustrated to offer sage advice and inspiration to students at what should be an imposing rite signifying their transformation from children to adults. Couldn't they have found a distinguished academic leader, scholar, businessman, journalist or, God forbid, very high level politican? I could have gotten them a former university president, possibly an important U.S. senator, or someone of that stature. Why couldn't the president of the university, armed with the appeal of offering also an honorary degree, done at least as well? Even spend some money and bribe a former U.S. president to come? (I once talked Jimmy Carter into speaking for $15,000 --surely he would do a commencement talk today for, say, $30,000 or $40,000, chump change to the athletic department). Students transition into the alumni family, and it is that family that sustains and supports institutions over the long run in most instances, especially for private schools but increasingly public ones as well. Make the transition a memorable one.

Annoyed enough, I read today in INSIDE HIGHER ED of the trials and tribulations of my Alma Mater, Northwestern University. It has behaved downright dumb. First, for the law school graduation they picked a somewhat sleazeball television performer and sometime low level politician (who once resigned from office after it was revealed he used a prostitute --and paid by check!!)), Jerry Springer. To be sure, he has a law degree from Northwestern, but he is not one of the school's most distinguished legal scholars. So does John Paul Stevens --and he is a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then they had the famous Rev. ("God Damn America") Wright slated for the main event. They disinvited him after he became something of a national joke and scandal. NU used to aim high --in 1999, they were slated to have the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright speak, although she rudely and inappropriately cancelled at the last minute. Maybe that is why the school goes for lightweights who they know would never cancel. But a school of Northwestern's distinction can do better.

Aggravating the troubles, President Henry Bienem wrote a truly nasty and inappropriate email to a student criticizing the choice --an email exuding arrogance (I had had a discussion with the late Dan Searle, major Northwestern benefactor and trustee, on NU's arrogance and stupidity a few months prior to his death, and this reinforces some of the feelings emanating from that conversation). To borrow from President Bienem's email to the student, "Grow Up Henry."


Speaking of commencement, the heart and soul of CCAP in many ways is its Whiz Kids --the coterie of bright, enthusiastic college kids who work for us doing first rate work (and keeping me young). Several are graduating this June: Thomas (Gordy) Ruchti, Jim Coleman, Bob Villwock, and one, Daniel Bennett (with a master's degree) in August. I will miss them a lot. They are more than students or employees --they are friends. Jim and Daniel are joining CCAP in Washington. Bob has a few more courses to go, so his graduation is actually a tad premature. And Thomas (Gordy) is going to study in a very serious and top-flight Ph.D. program at Cal Tech. I wish them all well. Thank God my old standbys Matt Denhart and Jonathan Robe will continue. I wish them all well in life's great adventure --and I have no doubts all will be successful in every way imaginable. It is the transformation of students into productive, thoughtful, meaningful adults that universities are about --first and foremost, a point many university leaders have forgotten in their quest for high rankings from US News & World Report.

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