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When wooing graduation speakers, colleges have their talking points

Schools not only offer honorary degrees and occasional fees, but send postcards, valentines and even videos to attract high-profile speakers.

March 16, 2014|By Jason Song
  • First Lady Michelle Obama, projected on an LED screen, gives the commencement address for the first full graduating class at UC Merced in May 2009. Students and staff had bombarded her with postcards, valentines and a video in which the narrator says: "Dear Michelle, we believe in you and we would be honored if you could be our keynote speaker."
First Lady Michelle Obama, projected on an LED screen, gives the commencement… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

The nearly two-minute UC Irvine video looks like an appeal to prospective students, featuring a montage of undergraduates walking around campus, dancing in classrooms and celebrating big basketball victories.

But the target audience becomes obvious at the end, when 7-foot-6 freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye looks directly into the camera while towering over a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama and says: "Mr. President, we should play ball together."

The video is the latest and perhaps most visible attempt by a university to attract a high-profile graduation speaker. Campuses have long tried to lure presidents and celebrities as a way of entertaining students and parents while drawing attention to their schools. But though schools still offer honorary degrees and even speaking fees in rare cases, some campuses have taken the wooing to a more visible level.

First Lady Michelle Obama accepted an invitation from UC Merced in 2009 to be that campus' first commencement speaker after students and staff bombarded her with postcards, valentines and a video in which the narrator says: "Dear Michelle, we believe in you and we would be honored if you could be our keynote speaker..."

The cost of having a member of the first family on campus isn't cheap; Merced didn't pay the first lady but had to shell out nearly $700,000 for additional security and other measures. But her visit brought invaluable publicity to the campus, which had been open for only four years at that point.

"It was the best advertising we could have hoped for," said Patti Waid, a Merced spokeswoman.

UC Irvine officials so far have spent about $1.2 million for a graduation ceremony that will be held at Angel Stadium in Anaheim but said that money already had been earmarked for the school's 50th anniversary celebration. Officials estimated the total cost for commencement will be less than $2 million.

Procuring graduation speakers can be a bit like asking someone to the prom. Faculty and students often debate who they'd like to speak (please say yes, Jon Stewart) versus who would actually come (the locally elected politician is available, right?), while also discreetly asking students and alumni if they have connections to anyone famous.

Then invitations are sent and fingers are crossed as administrators keep an eye on the calendar, trying to determine when they should go to the second option if the first doesn't pan out.

Even if the campus succeeds in getting a big-name speaker, the move can blow up in a whirlwind of negative publicity. UCLA students protested when James Franco was named a commencement speaker in 2009. The campus newspaper editorialized that the actor wasn't "esteemed" enough, and Franco later dropped out.

"A lot of it is managing expectations," said David Oxtoby, the president of Pomona College, where commencement speakers this year include Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama; Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries; and singer Placido Domingo.

Oxtoby, who previously taught at the University of Chicago, knew Jarrett from her time as a trustee at the campus. A Pomona trustee who is a major donor to the L.A Opera was able to persuade Domingo to attend.

Some schools eschew well-known speakers and ask faculty or administrators to speak at commencement, often as a way to cut down on costs and time.

At Washington and Lee University in Virginia in the 1930s, faculty met immediately after a U.S. senator finished a marathon graduation speech on one of the hottest days of the year and passed a resolution that the president, going forward, would give brief remarks at undergraduate commencement.

"The wise and fiscally prudent board [of trustees] determined that in future years our graduates and families should rest easy knowing that if they had to endure a worthless commencement address, it would at least be inexpensive," President Kenneth P. Ruscio said several years ago.

This year, big names are on the program at Stanford, where Bill and Melinda Gates are scheduled to appear, and Harvard, where former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will give remarks. Having an A-list graduation speaker can be a bigger deal at new campuses, educators and others say. Those schools could use additional publicity but have comparatively small alumni bases from which to pull speakers.

The presidential invitation is a break from UC Irvine tradition, where each of the 12 undergraduate and graduate schools generally has its own ceremony and administrators and faculty pick their own speakers. Over the years, author Sandra Tsing Loh, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis have all delivered addresses at graduations.

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