When it comes to commencement speakers, it’s all about “the get.” Much like Oprah Winfrey’s gabfest and the rest of the pabulum that passes for daytime television, if the featured guest is neither important nor interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention, then the whole show is a dud; just hand out the diplomas and be done with it.
A commencement speaker’s resume normally improves with the luster of the institution at which he has been hired to regale the soon-to-be-alumni. At some colleges, you might get a Congressman to fire off a few minutes of boilerplate about how he believes the children are the future, so teach them well and blah, blah, blah. At others, one can legitimately hope for a Presidential send-off, provided the President isn’t playing the back nine at Brookline that day. Ultimately, the commencement speaker needs to either be notable enough to be boring or interesting enough to lack notability, especially considering the fact that a great many of the people in the caps and gowns will be fighting exceedingly notable hangovers.
This past weekend, Rutgers University’s Class of 2014 had a rare opportunity to hear someone who combines both a notable presence and an exceedingly interesting story. It’s a tale of a black woman who rose from poverty in the Jim Crow South to become one of the most highly regarded diplomatic, geopolitical and academic minds on the planet. In fact, she overcame almost ridiculously long odds to become one of the most powerful women — most powerful people — on the planet.
Like anyone who has climbed to the loftiest heights of society, she has her detractors. To be fair, not all of her critics are motivated purely by racism and/or misogyny. Nonetheless, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice represents an outstanding “get” as a commencement speaker. Her story is practically an American dream case study, a fact acknowledged by the Rutgers Student Government when it voted 25-17 to extend its invitation to Rice.
Unfortunately, the members of the graduating class, along with the faculty, trustees, honored guests, proud parents and whichever undergrads manage to crawl out of their fraternity houses, didn’t get to hear Rice’s story. From a student body and faculty numbering close to 60,000, a group numbering in at least the tens, if not dozens, made enough racket to ruin a lifetime’s memory for the whole community. Following repeated, albeit poorly attended, protests by a fringe bunch of undereducated but over-radicalized kids, Rice withdrew from the engagement.
What a perfect parting lesson for the graduating class: Even if you represent a tiny sliver of the extreme left, even if your viewpoint has been the subject of an election which it lost, even if you might learn something more useful in your final minutes in the ivory tower than you did in four years of women’s studies and interpretive dance classes, you can still rain on everyone’s parade. Just kick, scream and stomp your feet until you get your way.
And it’s not as if Rutgers is the only school that imparts this lesson, deliberately or otherwise. What a fine lesson about tolerance, understanding and knowledge for the future best and brightest. At the very least, it sure beats burning six figures worth of mom and dad’s hard-earned money on something that might actually result in the new graduate moving out of their basement.