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Is There a Speaker in the House?

With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., the competition to find the perfect orator (or at least one who doesn't put the audience to sleep) is as hot as ever.

May 08, 2000|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Do you remember a line, or even a phrase, from the speech given by a famous person at your college commencement? Do you even remember who that person was?

According to veterans in the ever-escalating commencement-speaker wars, it's not likely that you do. Graduates and their families are too excited, too focused on the future, too filled with emotion to concentrate on the keynote speaker at the podium on graduation day.

Yet the search for the Perfect Speaker increases in competitive zeal each year. With more than 4,000 colleges and universities dotting the landscape, and more than 1 million graduates and families sitting through commencement exercises each year, schools must try ever-more valiantly to find the man or woman with a Golden Tongue. Someone to inspire, entertain, illuminate, ignite. Someone to impart blazing wisdom to graduates, while reassuring parents that their children (and their tuition fees) have gone to the right place. Someone whose prestigious name and accomplishments will inflate alumni with so much pride they rush to their checkbooks when the next college fund-raising letter arrives.

Schools crave speakers with something unforgettable to impart, leaving a lifetime impression on those lucky enough to have earned that chair in the sweltering sun.

Such speakers are, of course, almost impossible to come by. Not because they don't exist, but because the very nature of the event makes even the most compelling orator seem irrelevant. After listening to course lectures for four undergraduate years, even the Sermon on the Mount might not win the graduates' full attention, college officials say.

Yet from May through June of this year, schools across the country will showcase an amazing diversity of speakers. At more than 200 California campuses alone, the variety is astounding, from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at Stanford, to the Smothers Brothers at San Jose State. Speakers come from the worlds of film, TV, space, sports, politics, diplomacy, journalism, arts and letters.

A Varied List of Chosen Few

Journalists Cokie Roberts at Cal State Stanislaus and Judy Miller at Cal State Northridge; Voyager pilot Dick Rutan at Cal Poly Pomona; Disney chief Michael Eisner at USC; "Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt at UCLA; science fiction author Ray Bradbury at Caltech in Pasadena; author Maya Angelou at UC San Diego; Congresswoman Mary Bono at Cal State Coachella Valley, to name a few.

Elsewhere around the nation speakers will include comedians Drew Carey and Bill Cosby, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, actor Blair Underwood, musician John Mellencamp, Queen Noor of Jordan, Ted Turner, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Do you see a pattern here? Of course not. With all these colleges and universities vying for "someone good" to speak each year, many schools will grab at any respected name they think they can nab--as long as they can afford that person's speaking fee.

Speakers can be former graduates who have since become successful, or highly accomplished people who happen to have friendly ties with a particular faculty or board member of the school. Some schools get speakers through speakers' bureaus, many of whom describe their dealings with colleges as "chaotic, frenetic and often last-minute." Supplying commencement speakers has morphed into a specialty niche of its own, bureau representatives say--one that demands subtlety, diplomacy and sometimes guts, when they have to tell a college what it doesn't want to hear.

"Colleges come to us with their wish lists: 'Get us Steven Spielberg or Bill Gates, they say.' Of course, that's usually impossible, and not necessarily what they really need," says Jay Callahan of the Keppler Associates speakers' bureau in Arlington, Va. Callahan calls the commencement business "a whole different ball of wax. It's unpredictable and crazy."

There is sometimes little correlation between big fees and the excellence of the speaker or the speech, he says. Some luminaries who routinely make excellent commencement speeches, do so without requesting any fees. They simply feel good about doing it or are content to receive an honorary degree. Some who might charge top fees (which typically are as high as $100,000) will have little or no impact on the audience.

And some who would not be perceived as ideal speaking candidates make the biggest impact and get the best reviews from graduates, he says. His agency represents Carrie Kennedy Cuomo, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Ted Kennedy Jr., astronaut Jim Lovell, journalists Molly Ivins and William F. Buckley Jr., among others--almost all of whom are booked for commencements this year.

If there is a trend, Callahan says, it's that colleges have started to respond to their students' wishes for speeches that inspire, rather than irritate.

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