Campus Free Speech

The Skewed Line-Up of Commencement Speakers

A parade of celebrities, business owners, and politicians and activists from one side of the political aisle

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


In a previous post, I noted that the selection of commencement speakers has become a notorious minefield for universities in recent years. Although they have not entirely escaped threatened protests, walk-outs, and disinvitations (as evident this year by Concordia dumping Harvey Mansfield and Southern California dumping Jeh Johnson), universities have managed to turn down the heat somewhat on commencement exercises. Maybe that is because universities have become more firm in standing up to student activists, and that student activists have become more reluctant to denounce speakers. Unfortunately, the quieting of "disinvitation season" might simply be the result of college leaders becoming more adept in anticipating the demands of the protesters and in avoiding any speaker who might be "problematic." Of course, in a campus context "controversial" speakers are not randomly distributed across the ideological spectrum.

IF we want to know about the campus intellectual climate, we should not only track speaker disinvitations. We should track speaker invitations. This is more easily said than done, however. Speaker disinvitations might come to public attention (though they surely do not always), but speaker invitations are the routine background noise of life on college campus and less likely to attract notice. Speaker invitations on college campuses are often decentralized, and speakers on campus are not always widely publicized.

Commencement speakers are at least centrally chosen and well-publicized. They have become the object of recurrent controversy, and so have become relevant to debates about campus culture and campus free speech. Whether they are a particularly good metric for thinking about campus free speech issues is another question, and I'll return to that question in a separate post.

For now, I want to summarize the results of a survey of commencement speakers. I have a chapter on commencement speakers, as well as common summer readings, at colleges in a recently published edited volume, The Value and Limits of Academic Speech, as well as a post here. I gathered information about the publicly announced commencement speaker for nearly 500 colleges and universities in the spring of 2017. This is only a sample of all the commencement speakers who visited a campus and only for a single year, but it is a sizeable sample that includes higher education institutions from across the country, red states and blue states, public and private institutions, large and small, research-oriented and teaching-oriented. It can give us a sense of who the run-of-the-mill commencement speakers are beyond the headlines of particular commencement speaker controversies. (Jeffrey Sachs has collected data for a longer time period at a set of selective institutions, which shows Michael Bloomberg accounting for a surprisingly large percentage of the total number of Republican commencement speakers in the twenty-first century.)

The headline of a recent legal news summary of 2019 law school commencement speaker selections tells the story: "Athletes, Musicians and Politicians Headline the 2019 Law School Commencement Circuit." It is no accident that athletes and musicians lead the pack. Celebrity, not intellectual distinction, is a key selling point for a commencement speaker. J.J. Watt, the star linebacker of the Houston Texans, planned to wing it as the 2019 commencement speaker for the University of Wisconsin. His plan was foiled when the school asked for a text of his speech so they could put in on the teleprompter, leading to a conversation about whether it would be appropriate for him to "go up there and talk" "for about five minutes" before everyone could just "go drink beer." J.J. understands the modern college experience, at least as captured by one notorious "social media influencer" who did not "know how much of school I'm gonna attend" but definitely "want[ed] the experience of like game days, partying." The 2019 law school commencement speakers reported on in the article above included such notable legal minds as Paul McCartney and former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, but also plenty of "lawmakers and judges" such as Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former Obama administration attorney general Loretta Lynch, and New York attorney general Barbara Underwood (famed for closing the Trump charitable foundation). One notices a pattern.

The pattern plays itself out in my larger sample from the spring of 2017 as well. In the wake of the 2016 elections and Republican dominance of the political landscape, one might expect a few Republicans to deliver commencement addresses. And a few did. President Donald Trump went to Liberty University. Notre Dame broke its tradition by not inviting the newly inaugurated president but instead went with his home-state running mate (despite a threatened student walk-out). Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was booed at historically black Bethune-Cookman University. Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker spoke at Hamilton College, and Sen. Susan Collins spoke at St. Lawrence College (which assured its graduates that Collins was "the most bipartisan member" of the Senate). A couple of Republican state legislators spoke at the local college in their district. And that was about it.

By contrast, Democratic politicians and activists crisscrossed the country delivering commencement addresses. Obama White House staffers and cabinet members graced many a stage. Joe Biden, Jill Biden, and Hillary Clinton had multiple engagements (Bill Clinton had to make do with one). Democratic presidential aspirants old and new, from Howard Dean, Bill Bradley and Bill Richardson to Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Corey Booker, were in great demand. Democratic congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi, John Lewis, Tim Ryan, and Tim Kaine spoke to graduates, as did activists and media figures such as Van Jones and Gloria Steinem.

On the whole, explicitly political commencement speakers made up only a fifth of the sample, but they were drawn overwhelmingly from the political left. Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders were nowhere to be found. Graduates could hardly throw a mortarboard without hitting a Democratic politician. Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were undoubtedly "too controversial" to speak to college graduates and their families. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden were obviously "safe" speaker selections.

This does not include the parade of media figures who served as commencement speakers. Notably colleges seemed to lean toward relatively centrist figures for commencements speakers. CNN anchors predominated over MSNBC or Fox News anchors. But when colleges were willing to venture toward opinion leaders, they universally veered left.

But far more common than politicians, activists or thought leaders were celebrities, business leaders, and aspirational figures. Prominent schools could land Oprah Winfrey, Helen Mirren, Will Ferrell, Billie Jean King, and Julius Erving. Less prominent schools were left with lesser known musicians, actors, comedians, and athletes. Harvard could attract Mark Zuckerberg, and MIT could offer their graduates Tim Cook. State and regional schools relied on their own wealthy alumni and donors and local business owners to deliver the commencement address.

Most commencement speakers were better known for their inspiring life stories or luxurious lifestyles than for their contributions to the world of ideas or their political accomplishments. Picking an astronaut or a coffee company president to deliver the commencement address is no guarantee that students will not find a reason to protest and issue demands for a disinvitation, but it certainly reduces the odds. Few college leaders had any interest in picking a commencement speaker who might challenge the orthodoxies of the dominant campus culture.