Friday, March 20, 2015

Why Graduation Speakers Should (Usually) Be Local — & Cheap (6 April 2014)

              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.

            Commencement 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.

            Expensive, 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).

            The 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.

            I 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.

            If 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.

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