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Top 10 Most Controversial Commencement Speakers in College History


For many college students, much more time and attention is spent working on the material necessary to get the degree than thinking about what will happen when they finally get to graduation. But for others, a big part of the payoff for all that hard work getting a college degree is getting sent off into the real world by a great leader, speaker or celebrity who will deliver a memorable commencement speech. Unfortunately, not all speakers are a good match for the schools that offer them the chance to come speak. Here are ten commencement speakers who caused quite a stir when it was announced they would be speaking at these schools.

  1. Barack Obama, Notre Dame, 2009: One wouldn’t think getting the president to come speak at your school would be anything less than an honor, but that wasn’t the case when President Obama was asked to give a commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009. While Obama’s success as a lawyer, professor and politician make him an admirable role model for students, protestors felt that his views on abortion made him an inappropriate choice to speak at a traditionally Catholic university. Obama addressed these concerns in his speech, stating that "when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do – that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground." These political issues that stir up nationwide controversy and media coverage may be the reason that so many commencement speeches are given by celebrities rather than politicians.
  2. Jerry Springer, Northwestern University, 2008: While Jerry Springer graduated in 1968 with a JD from Northwestern’s prestigious law school, served as Cincinnati’s mayor, and saw success as a news broadcaster, many students felt he was an inappropriate choice for a commencement speaker. Due to Springer’s controversial TV show that focuses on often violent confrontations between women and their children’s possible fathers, cheating, and other less than classy subject matter — as well as and Springer’s own indiscretions with a prostitute while mayor — many felt he simply wasn’t their ideal choice for a speaker. Despite these criticisms, and Springer’s own acknowledgement of the controversy, he delivered a short speech on ethics and honesty to law students that drew applause from many in the crowd.
  3. Salman Rushdie, Nova Southeastern University, 2006: Salman Rushdie is an Indian author who has won numerous honors for his work; however, one of this most famous books, The Satanic Verses, offended many Muslims around the world causing the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue an order for his death resulting in many assassination attempts, bombings and violence. Despite many efforts to apologize, affirm his Islamic beliefs and rectify his mistakes, anger against Rushdie continues to this day. When he was selected as a speaker, many Muslim students spoke out, calling his selection insulting. The school defended it’s selection and Rushdie went on to deliver his speech at the school.
  4. Mumia Abu-Jamal, Evergreen State College, 1999: It doesn’t get much more controversial than having a commencement speech delivered via tape from a jail cell. That’s just what happened at Evergreen State College in 1999. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a man many people believe was wrongly convicted of a 1981 shooting of a police officer that landed him on death row. His decades-long attempts to get a new trial have given him national attention as he claims adamantly that he was and is innocent of the crime. Of course, whether he is or not is up to a jury to decide, and many students felt that having a death row inmate speech at graduation was immensely inappropriate and insulting. While the majority of students stayed to listen to his speech, some did walk out or brought items of protest to the ceremony.
  5. Clarence Thomas, University of Georgia, 2008. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was only the second African American to hold his position, but his achievement was overshadowed by accusations he had sexually harassed attorney Anita Hill on the job. No firm decision was ever made as to who was telling the truth in the situation, and the debate on the issue continues today. Because of this, students and faculty at the University of Georgia expressed doubts about how appropriate a choice Thomas was for a commencement speaker because of his past and the school’s recent scandals involving sexual harassment. The school’s president stood firm in his choice, however, and Thomas went on to deliver a well-received speech.
  6. Phyllis Schlafly, Washington University, St. Louis, 2008. Many students and faculty at Washington University were outraged when this conservative political activist and attorney was to be honored with an honorary doctorate and the right to speak at commencement in 2008. Protests were in reaction to Schlafly’s anti-feminist standpoint, her opposition to the equal rights amendment and her belief that rape cannot occur within marriage: stances that many felt were against the spirit of intellectualism and gender equality among students. The school defended its decision stating that they were not supporting her politics, only honoring an alumna who had made an impact on American life. They went ahead with the ceremony and gave Schlafly the award, while nearly one third of the students protested by turning their backs on the event. Schlafly did not give any speech upon receiving the award.
  7. Michael Mukasey, Boston College Law School, 2008: Many students were offended when Boston College’s Law School asked the former Attorney General to be the speaker at graduation. While Mukasey has an admirable background as a lawyer, recent events at his confirmation hearings placed him in a pretty negative light when he refused to say whether or not he thought waterboarding was a form of torture that should be illegal. Faculty and students at the school felt that these comments made Mukasey a choice inconsistent with the values of the school and study of law. Despite these protests, Mukasey did go on to speak at the school, though he was not awarded the school’s Founder’s Medal, as commencement speakers before him had been.
  8. Ben Stein, University of Virginia, 2009. While many know Ben Stein from his show, Win Ben Stein’s Money, and appearances in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and a variety of TV commercials, few are aware that he is actually an economist and was a speech writer for former President Nixon. Many also don’t know that Stein is a staunch conservative and a proponent of intelligent design, with criticisms of evolution. While Stein was positively received at a lecture at the school earlier in the year, students felt quite differently about having him at commencement, many feeling that he was "anti-science" and didn’t fit with the spirit of the university. Stein agreed to back out of the event and the speech was given by Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III instead.
  9. Dick Cheney, Brigham Young University, 2007. As a controversial political figure in America, many students and faculty at BYU weren’t exactly thrilled when then Vice President Dick Cheney was selected to be their commencement speaker. In fact, many worked to sign petitions and get support to have a new speaker chosen. Protestors thought that asking Cheney to speak would be an endorsement of his politics, against the neutrality they sought for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. While the selection brought the ire of many students, Cheney’s speech was ultimately apolitical and was well received by the audience of over 20,000. The student protestors held their own commencement, however, with speakers Ralph Nader and Jack Healey.
  10. James Franco, UCLA, 2009. Students didn’t protest James Franco as a commencement speaker because they disliked his politics, thought he was a slouch, or any of the usual reasons. No, students protested Franco speaking because he was a fellow member of the UCLA student body, a fact many thought should disqualify him from the honor of speaking at commencement. Franco gave in to student criticism and gave up the opportunity to give the speech, making a joke out of it later in a spoofed commencement speech.

January 5th, 2010 written by Staff Writers

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