My advice to the graduates: Plastics.
June 8, 2008 7:21 PM   Subscribe

Randy Pausch, Barbara Kingsolver, Barack Obama, and J.K. Rowling inspired the hell out of Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Wesleyan, and Harvard graduates this year. If you're a big fan of pomp and circumstance, you'll also want to check out these: Chuck Norris at Liberty University, Samantha Power at Pitzer College, and Michelle Nijhuis at Reed College.

Some great commencement speeches of yesteryear can be found here. These are my favorites: Bono at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania (2004), Elie Wiesel at DePaul University (1997), or Vaclav Havel at Harvard University (1994).
posted by anotherpanacea (35 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Just watched Samantha Power and found it good.
posted by stbalbach at 7:55 PM on June 8, 2008

I am so looking into joining the Peace Corps now. If they give me a college education, they could have me as long as I could be useful. I have to check the age limit. I am 38. It's probably not a problem. Wow, a slacker is getting motivated for the first time in his life.
posted by Flex1970 at 7:57 PM on June 8, 2008

Harvard College Class Day (not Commencement) Speeches:
Will Ferrell | 2003.

Ali G | 2004.

Tim Russert | 2005.

Seth MacFarlane | 2006.

William Jefferson Clinton | 2007.

Ben S. Bernanke | 2008.*
posted by ericb at 8:38 PM on June 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Chuck Norris? Really? Figures, at Liberty University, somehow. As one imagines the education is, so is the commencement speaker.
posted by adoarns at 8:55 PM on June 8, 2008

Just read J. K. Rowling's speech and now there's something in my eye! I'll have to save the rest for later if I'm to get anything done.
posted by Coaticass at 9:07 PM on June 8, 2008

Man. I'm graduating tomorrow, and I get...a former Afghani finance minister? What gives?
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 9:30 PM on June 8, 2008

I watched Rowling's speech earlier on youtube. I thought it was amazing and insightful, and very touching.
posted by pjern at 9:53 PM on June 8, 2008

I was there for the Pausch speech at Carnegie Mellon -- it was very touching. He was a surprise speaker though, not the main commencement speaker. The main speaker was Al Gore.
posted by yevge at 10:02 PM on June 8, 2008

Man. I'm graduating tomorrow, and I get...a former Afghani finance minister? What gives?

Not your school, or at least not for speakers, anyway. Name of your school?
posted by tarheelcoxn at 10:27 PM on June 8, 2008

We got Judith Butler. And a cat wandered onstage during the ceremony, and that was awesome.
posted by dismas at 11:04 PM on June 8, 2008

Also, as long as we're adding favorites, I quite liked Jon Stewart's at William and Mary, which was discussed previously.
posted by dismas at 11:05 PM on June 8, 2008

I just graduated from RIT a few weeks ago. Previous commencement speakers include the guy who invented the Segway, Bill Clinton, and the CEO of Xerox.

This year, we got...the university provost - who got an honorary degree that was authorized by himself.

Funny guy, but I wish we had someone a bit more famous.
posted by champthom at 11:24 PM on June 8, 2008

Apropos of nothing...I would like to marry Sam Power. The speaker at my commencement, which I didn't attend, was the awesome but highly controversial Dr. Charlie Daniels (UNC-W). The fiddle player. We were a pretty relaxed bunch of rednecks and beach bums.
posted by dawson at 3:50 AM on June 9, 2008

I'm sure there was a speaker at my commencement at Pitt but I couldn't tell you who he/she was. I was there but I had been up for five days getting my final project done and was barely conscious. The only think keeping me awake was the fact that I'd gotten caught in a torrential downpour right before the ceremony and was getting hypothermia sitting on a folding chair on the floor of the Mellon Arena.
posted by octothorpe at 3:54 AM on June 9, 2008

*Clears throat*
From a letter by fiddle-player and Wilmington native Charlie Daniels after some students at UNC-Wilmington objected to having him as commencement speaker.

I would like to clear up a few points about my addressing your class at commencement exercises....Having been born in Wilmington, I consider it an honor to be asked to speak to you on one of the biggest days of your lives, and I accepted the honor with gratitude and humility. I cannot speak to you of lofty academic ideals nor scholarly pursuits because I have neither entree nor credentials for that world.
The truth is I come to you from the street, from reality, the very same place you're all headed if you plan to make a living in this ever-changing, difficult, show-me world, and when your college days are just a memory and your diploma hangs beneath dusty glass on some office wall, you will still have to deal with the world on its own terms every working hours of your lives....My career spans almost 40 years and you don't go through 40 years of hard work and unrelenting competition without learning a few things.
My qualifications are humble but extensive and diverse. I've stood at the 38th Parallel and looked across into the hostile eyes of the North Korean border guards. I've been catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Adriatic Sea and ridden across the frozen wastes of Greenland on an Eskimo dog sled. I've taken a hammer and chisel to the Berlin Wall and performed with symphony orchestras. I've had conversations with presidents and walked in the halls of Congress lobbying for legislation in which I believe. I've flown on the Concorde and acted in motion pictures. I've seen the royal palaces of Europe and the hovels of Hong Kong.
I've seen the Mona Lisa and stared in awe at the timeless works of Vincent Van Gogh. I've gathered cattle in the Big Bend country of Texas and met some of the wisest people I know at campfires in the middle of nowhere. I was privileged to have conversations with Alex Haley and Louis L'Amour. I've appeared with the Rolling Stones, worked in the recording studio with Bob Dylan and two of the Beatles. I've been married to the same woman for over 30 years and raised a son who did, by the way, go to college. I've kept 20 people gainfully and steadily employed for over 20 years.
I am not a man of letters, I readily admit that. But is being a man of letters the only thing which qualifies one to speak to a group of men and women who are about to enter the real world? My world.
My address will not be delivered in the beautiful strains of poetry of a Maya Angelou or with technical expertise of a Tom Clancy, but I can tell you where some of the land mines are hidden, the shortest path to the top of the mountain and the quickest way down.
Been there, done that.

posted by dawson at 3:56 AM on June 9, 2008 [7 favorites]

We don't really have famous people give keynote addresses at our Commencement ceremonies, though we usually hear a few words from people that receive honorary degrees. I guess this year's class got Robert Redford for a few minutes. We got B.B. King.

Irregardless isn't a word.
posted by lunit at 4:49 AM on June 9, 2008

I got Vivian Pinn and Ron Suskind. If you don't know who those people are, take heart; I had to look them up myself just now. The administrators only pick actual alumni. If the speeches were not going to be so lame, I probably wouldn't have snuck in booze to final exercises.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:57 AM on June 9, 2008

Commencement speeches are typically an exercise in self-congratulation, wherein the speaker takes their success upon themselves and seeks to reinforce the concept by broadcasting it, long and loud. When they get some famous actor or politician to speak, they credit their own hard work and their personal outlook as what got them where they are - not a series of lucky breaks, which factor in enormously, or the people they knew, or anything else. Nobody says, "I was a legacy, that's how I got into this university." The speeches do not mention the deaths of those who have gone before them, opening up a corner office. At the end of the speech, students are typically exhorted to reach for their dreams, grab the brass ring, etc., no matter what impractical degree they have spent years (and often a great deal of money) attaining.

The University does not look for speakers in a dim restaurant in Hollywood, wherein a still-handsome fifty year old man performs a bit of dinner theatre, again, and hopes that this gig will last. No tiny Pentagon offices will be searched for the party flak who has held the line and managed to keep a bit of his integrity over the years. They do not visit the scientist who has maintained grant money and her department just keeping some little corner of biology ticking over, despite the fact that it is not sexy enough to be on the news. The world is full of so many more people who went for the gold, tried just as hard as anyone else, and ended up nobodies with useless degrees.

Graduation speeches are the final little pep talk from the salesman as you drive the latest flimsy bit of Detroit steel off the parking lot.
posted by adipocere at 5:13 AM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

The J.K. Rowling talk was good, got something in my eye over here too.

My commencement speaker was the then current governor of my state. *head droops, starts snoring*
posted by marxchivist at 5:50 AM on June 9, 2008

I was *supposed* to get Dan Rather, I think it was, but he couldn't make it and instead we got something like the junior undersecretary to the Joint Chief of Staff's laundry guy. The class AFTER mine, DID get Rather, though. Bah.
posted by absalom at 6:14 AM on June 9, 2008

I loved the Rowling speech. She was clearly nervous about it, and seemed to have given genuine thought to what she wanted to say.

As someone who has not been touched by the Pottermania I have to say that I now hold Ms. Rowling very high regard.
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:18 AM on June 9, 2008

Alan Greenspan. I think I skipped it.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:43 AM on June 9, 2008

I went to the Rowling link after reading the comments.

Oh, I say..gulp!

(No, I wasn't touched by Potter either. But that was very nearly unimprovable.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:00 AM on June 9, 2008

Genevieve Bell, Director of User Experience within Intel’s Digital Home Group and an anthropologist by training, gave the commencement speech at Berkley [pdf] this year. Not my school, and I didn't attend, but I found it worth reading (if you in the mood for a commencement speech).
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:27 AM on June 9, 2008

From Genevieve Bell's speech:
Anthropologists, it turns out, are full of advice. What do the following statements all have in common: “The safest seat is always the one directly behind the driver.” “Take 10 grams of quinine every night and keep off the women.” “Walk in cheap sandshoes, the water runs out of them faster”. And “Always lie to customs officials”? Well, they are all pieces of advice given by anthropologists to would-be anthropologists before they set off to the field.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:30 AM on June 9, 2008

Class before me got both Bill Clinton and Anna Deavere Smith. With some shenanigans regarding money/power, etc. we got Stan O'Neal, who talked about how great Merrill Lynch was and how great Stan O'Neal was. A few months later dude got fired for being part of this whole economic fuckup, though it's great to be fired when you're Stan O'Neal because they pay you $160 million just to clean out your desk. Think on that: it's setup so these assholes get paid enough to be set for life even for fucking up completely.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:31 AM on June 9, 2008

Some people thought Rowling wasn't good enough for Harvard:
"You know, we're Harvard. We're like the most prominent national institution. And I think we should be entitled to … we should be able to get anyone. And in my opinion, we're settling here. "
posted by enn at 8:45 AM on June 9, 2008

"You know, we're Harvard. We're like the most prominent national institution. And I think we should be entitled to … we should be able to get anyone. And in my opinion, we're settling here. "

Ooooh, zinger!

The supplier of that quote - one Kevin Bombino - seems to be: "Entrepreneur and Web 2.0 Consultant. Kevin M. Bombino".

The whole point of Rowling's address - that failure can be a useful personal lesson even for Harvard's graduates, was clearly not his thing.

His capsule online resume informs: CV available on request. Serious inquiries only. Generally, I'm not interested in consulting for anyone who's been in business for less than a year.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:46 AM on June 9, 2008

I'm sure there was a speaker at my commencement at Pitt but I couldn't tell you who he/she was.

Seconded! But that's because I refused to attend mine. Sorry, mom.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 10:23 AM on June 9, 2008

Some people thought Rowling wasn't good enough for Harvard

What an idiot (Bombino, not Rowling). I was actually there at the speech, and everybody around me was rapt. The most impressive thing to me was her relentless humility, without the slightest touch of false humility. The bit about not glorifying poverty was something the crowd really needed to hear. And then she dug in and challenged everyone, not in any grandiose way but from her personal experience. Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson were the two best speakers I had seen before, but she blew them away.
posted by msalt at 11:00 AM on June 9, 2008

The quotes from Bombino and his ilk serve to support an old theory of mine: that there is no institution of higher learning that is so fine that it can guarantee improvement of every student who passes through it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:45 AM on June 9, 2008

Talking about getting the shaft. MIT, 2007: Got the outgoing president Charles Vest. (Meanwhile, up the road, Harvard had Clinton!). All of which wouldn't be so bad if the guy didn't give such a terrible speech. Whatever, I had to go, I needed the physical proof and reassurance that some last minute bureaucratic hurdle or unknown library fine or suchlike wasn't going to prolong the pain. Plus I got to wear a cute grey and pink robe made of the sweatiest material ever invented.
posted by bumpkin at 12:25 PM on June 9, 2008

Talking about getting the shaft. MIT, 2007: Got the outgoing president Charles Vest. (Meanwhile, up the road, Harvard had Clinton!).

You got double shafted. Harvard, 2007: Bill Clinton delivered the Class Day address; Bill Gates delivered the commencement address the following day.
posted by ericb at 12:55 PM on June 9, 2008

YA author Chris Crutcher spoke at the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling* ceremony. He's not the best public speaker I've seen, but the content was awesome.

*Full disclosure: I am an employee of the College.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 2:07 PM on June 9, 2008

I just found the Rowling speech through another site and was quite moved by it. Was going to FPP it and then found out I'd missed it in this post.
posted by Tehanu at 8:53 AM on June 17, 2008

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