In an opinion piece in the Ventura County Star for 6 April 2014, Ritch K. Eich, advises what to look for in collegiate commencement speakers from the quite legitimate point of view of Ritch K. Eich, president of a "leadership and marketing consulting firm" in Thousand Oaks, CA. I come to the issue from the point of view of a retired university professor who had to sit through a number of such speeches.
speakers are a variety of outside speakers and should be considered in
terms of the wider issue of "value added" vs. cost of outside speakers
as a group. My experience was that A-List speakers are indeed useful for
marketing the university "brand" but not often worth much beyond that.
big-name speakers frequently don't take a college gig very seriously,
perhaps on the correct assumption that what they're being paid for is
their name and the publicity their appearance on campus can generate —
and that in a fame- and status-obsessed culture the "mana" of being in their presence is more important for most of the audience than the quality of theie performance.
I heard a good speech in 1968 when Cornell broke tradition
for its hundredth commencement and brought in John W. Gardner, a
recently-resigned Presidential Cabinet member, to address the graduates.
At Miami University (Ohio), Art Buchwald gave an excellent commencement
address, and Barbara Ehrenreich gave a politically significant talk —
we were in the midst of a strike — as did Mikhail Gorbachev in a special
program sponsored by, somewhat surprisingly, our generally conservative
business school (Miami U is in John Boehner's Congressional District,
and the alma mater of Paul Ryan).
other talks were usually okay, but not always, and not as good as we
were likely to get — cheaply or for free — from, say, the valedictorian
of the graduating class or a member of the faculty getting a teaching
award from the graduates.
suggested a rule for Miami U that no speaker should be paid for a
speech more than half (?) — a percentage I've forgotten — of the annual
compensation of the university's lowest paid employee; and if the speech
cost us more than a couple thousand dollars, the speech should be
"writing for hire" and become the property of the university. We could
generously allow the speech to be "canned," and delivered elsewhere, but
only with permission of the Trustees and payment of a dollar. I
suggested further that with any expensive speech we insist on a copy a
week or two before the date of delivery: not to censor or even comment
upon content, but to ensure the speech fit into the allotted time, and
was written in advance and not on the plane, as one speaker cheerfully
admitted, or not at all: the Honorable Sam Ervin of Watergate fame took
us meandering down memory lane one time for a couple good stories, but
nothing new or worth his fee.
Few people can ad lib a decent speech, and far fewer should be paid for the attempt.
you can get John F. Kennedy proposing the Peace Corps or Winston
Churchill on "The Iron Curtain," go for it. Otherwise, save your money
at commencement and get a graduate to say a few words — or just get on
with the ceremony.