College commencement speeches are not usually remembered for their brevity or wit. In fact, sometimes they're not remembered, period. Sandra Tsing Loh, for example, couldn't recall who the speaker was at her own 1983 Caltech commencement when she was asked about it shortly after being named this year's speaker at her prestigious alma mater.
This is wild-card casting, of a sort, since Loh is not exactly scientifically inclined and has often publicly admitted that she never really enjoyed doing science, wasn't very good at it and leaped into the literary and artistic life almost as soon as she stepped off Caltech's campus, physics degree in hand.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Graduation speakers -- An April 27 Calendar article about college commencement speeches stated that author Carlos Fuentes was the speaker at Harvard in 1984. Fuentes gave the commencement address there in 1983. King Juan Carlos I of Spain was the speaker in 1984.
Because of her success as a performance artist, author, composer and radio raconteur, whose works bubble with acid-tinged humor (she once hired a 35-piece symphony orchestra to serenade the grunion at midnight on Malibu beach), Loh stacks up as one of the potentially more entertaining speakers this graduation season, as students around the country, yearning to be free, must sit through that one last "lecture" before receiving their diplomas.
Universities place great importance on this final exhortation. They struggle valiantly each year to find individuals of great accomplishment who can inspire and uplift the young, while impressing their wealthier elders. In many academic circles, the greater the prestige of the commencement speaker, the greater the chance donations will follow.
But prestige can come at a high price. Schools that can't lure a prominent individual willing to donate time and energy to the speech sometimes book famous people through speakers bureaus, where fees can range up to six figures. Oprah Winfrey is always the most requested graduation speaker, says Theo Moll of Keppler Associates in Arlington, Va. "But I've never booked her for a graduation. Her fee would be astronomical," Moll says.
In fact, commencement speeches are not big business for the agency, because school administrators "tend to reach for distinguished alumni who will waive their honorariums," Moll says. Or they opt for in-office political figures, who cannot accept fees. "If you are in New York state, and you request Hillary Rodham Clinton, she cannot accept an honorarium. It's just not done. Your congressman or senator cannot accept money from a state university. So the school saves money and gets a distinguished speaker." (This year, Sen. Clinton will give the commencement address at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga.)
Keppler client Nancy Grace, the former Atlanta prosecutor who is now a CNN commentator, will appear at Utica College in N.Y.; Ben Stein, the economist, TV celebrity and former Nixon speechwriter, has been booked for Ithaca College. Moll will not discuss their fees, but says that "frequently, the fee is reduced" if the speaker wants to do a good deed for higher education.
Some high-profile individuals don't opt for money, but instead make "deals" to speak in exchange for an honorary degree, or perhaps for the promise of a scholarship fund set up to assist a particular category of students. Last year, Queen Noor of Jordan spoke to graduates at L.A.'s Occidental College, at which time the school set up a scholarship for Jordanian students.
Last year, a relatively obscure college scored perhaps one of the greatest commencement coups: a sitting Supreme Court justice. Sandra Day O'Connor spoke at Centre College in Danville, Ky., after being persuaded by friends who were alumni, one of whom provided a private jet to transport her. These days, even well-endowed private institutions don't want to shell out big bucks when so many campus needs are going unmet. And a place like Caltech, which is nonprofit, won't pay a cent to its commencement speakers, says Bob O'Rourke, chairman of the school's commencement speaker committee. Each year, he heads a small group composed of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members and a representative from the school president's office. This committee selects a slate of candidates from nominees suggested by the student body via a campus website.
But there's a catch. "Let's say you're a student who wants to nominate Walter Cronkite. You can't just propose his name. You have to know how to get hold of him, have some sort of relationship or know someone who has a relationship with him. Don't just give us a name. We need some reasonable expectation that we can easily reach that person, and that he or she might agree to do it," O'Rourke says.
Loh, incidentally, wasn't the students' first choice. O'Rourke says Jimmy Carter topped the list: "He is a perfect fit, since he's a nuclear engineer as well as past president." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was second choice. Both were invited but neither could accept the commitment, he says. And Loh, whose father and brother also graduated from Caltech and who has been active in the alumni association, "will undoubtedly have a wonderful message for us," O'Rourke says.