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2012 Archives

Do Commencement Speeches Matter?


The following story ran on the May 16, 2012, edition of the New York Times Magazine 6th Floor blog. SMU welcomed former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as its 97th Commencement speaker on May 12, 2012.

May 25, 2012

By The Staff

Ask people to tell you what was said at their college graduations and many of them will claim not to remember. That’s less likely to be the case (for a few years, at least) for the Class of 2012 at Barnard College and the U.S. Air Force Academy after President Obama has addressed them. Other high-profile commencement speakers this season include Condoleezza Rice at Southern Methodist University, Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Gonzaga University, Hank Aaron at Marquette University and Barbara Walters at Yale (Harvard gets Fareed Zakaria). But does anything said during a commencement speech really stay with us, or do we just remember the personality who delivered it? Below, some staff recollections.
1980. Norman Cousins, peace activist. “I only remember that a giant ceramic turtle was glued to the outdoor stage the night before the event. (On the advice of counsel, I must add that I don’t know who would have done such a thing.)”
1982. Ted Koppel. “He was modest, brief, humble and smart. He was an alum, and he gave a shout-out to his old fraternity, the only one on campus with a nonhazing policy.”
1983. Lewis Thomas, author and the dean of Yale Medical School. “All I remember is that it rained and his speech concentrated on his book, ‘Lives of a Cell.’ I guess a somewhat odd speaker for a traditional liberal-arts college.”
1984. Jim Lehrer. “His daughter was in our class. Sadly, I don’t remember anything from it. No matter what he said, it would have been hard to compete with the speaker from the year before: Meryl Streep, who graduated from Vassar in 1971. She said, ‘If you can live with the devil, then Vassar has not sunk its teeth into you.’ (It was The Times’s quotation of the day.)”
1985. Gerald Boyd, then a reporter in Washington for The New York Times. “An inspiring, humble speech about being raised by his grandmother.”...