In December 1996, the communications scholar Michael Eric Dyson, then at the University of North Carolina, delivered the commencement address to fall graduates and their families.
A “hip-hop intellectual” and noted author on race in the United States, Dyson (now at Georgetown University) urged his audience to heed the messages of alienation in youth-oriented popular culture. “The value of youth culture is partly in its blistering detail about how the American Dream has not only been fondled, but molested,” he said. His repetition of earthy lyrics—including sex references from the famously angsty Alanis Morrisette and Snoop Dogg lyrics with the words “n***a” and “h*”—so outraged some parents and attendees that they reportedly walked out before the much-anticipated conferral of degrees.
One graduate’s mother took issue with Dyson’s content and delivery: “It was extremely inappropriate because Commencement should be a joyous occasion. It is not for everyone in that audience to be screamed at 18 minutes. I thought his tone was inappropriate. I thought his negativism was inappropriate. What we need is positivism.” UNC Chancellor Michael Hooker’s office was flooded with angry phone calls the next day.
Dyson’s speech—which also encouraged graduates to respect their family’s sacrifices and to make it “possible for everyone to enjoy the beautiful domain of American democracy,” points lost in the fracas—was a seminal moment in campus culture wars. Right-leaning commentators questioned Dyson’s scholarly credentials, the judgment of the speaker selection committee, and whether hip hop and pop culture were worthy of study. As one pundit from the conservative North Carolina-based John Locke Foundation argued, universities were being inundated by syllabi featuring lefty favorites Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault. And to boot: “Kurt Cobain was a strung-out whiner and rock star who killed himself; [Jenny] McCarthy is a former MTV bimbo-host; Morisette is a banshee who sings about oral sex; and Dogg (or is it Snoop?) is a rich thug who raps about ‘pimpin’ h*’s’ and other insightful topics.”
Bitter as the Dyson commencement fallout was, it was far from the first controversy in the history of commencement addresses, one of the most praised and pilloried forms of oratory.
While commencements are occasions for celebration, critics have often mocked the hackneyed “endings-are-really-beginnings” advice to those leaving the ivory tower. A June 1971 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan magazine listed the formulaic elements of a typical commencement speech. First a joke, then hat tips to faculty and proud parents whose “little dumplings” are now “effulgent with the glow of glorious manhood and womanhood.” Also on the menu: thanks for the gig, flattery, shamefaced extemporizing about “dumbbells of older generation like self,” a Socrates quote, and warnings to the graduates about the harsh world that awaits.
But precisely because the commencement speech traffics in homilies that emphasize young people’s civic and professional duties, it’s a highly politicized form of speech that’s subject to scrutiny. As the sociologist Markella Rutherford has pointed out, graduation remarks are full of rhetoric about moral behavior, collective responsibility and anxiety over whether new alumni will go forth into the world and make the “right” choices.
These discussions of the individual and their relationship to the world are tailor-made for controversy. Ralph Waldo Emerson found this out in 1838, when he delivered his famous “Divinity School Address” at the request of the seven graduates in Harvard’s program. Having left a post as a minister at a Boston church, the 35-year-old Emerson told the seminarians that the embrace of religious doctrine and overreliance on the preacher as teacher had undermined the power of individual revelation. “Let me admonish you, first of all” he said to the graduates, “to go alone; to refuse good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
Predictably, Emerson’s take rankled old-line Unitarians and some practitioners of other denominations, who saw this as a Martin Luther-type challenge to their leadership and accused him of atheism. And, just as predictably for the independent thinker and philosopher, Emerson was not cowed and published the remarks for public consumption before the brouhaha died down.
But if the content of both Dyson’s and Emerson’s talks angered some listeners and commentators, more modern commencement controversies sometimes begin before the anointed speaker even steps on campus. That was the case in 1990, when Wellesley College picked former First Lady Barbara Bush to share her wisdom to its graduating seniors. According to sociologist Rosanna Hertz and historian Susan M. Reverby, both on the Wellesley faculty at the time, the “choice of speaker… becomes a way an institution signals how it will be sending its graduates into the world and who they should become.”
A significant portion of the graduating class saw it that way, too. In a letter signed by a quarter of the class, the students complained that Barbara Bush had largely “gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contradicts what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.” The students suggested adding an additional speaker who might “more aptly reflect the self-affirming qualities of a Wellesley graduate.” Alumni wrote hundreds of letters to the university, mostly disagreeing with the students’ protest and labeling it as churlish “ill-breeding” unbefitting both Bush and students at the women’s college. This was a matter of manners, intelligence, and a good education—things that they believed a Wellesley woman should possess in spades.
Battles of over just who gets the honor of toasting new graduates—and what they say—aren’t going anywhere, especially when commencement speakers opt out of clichés, delve into more difficult territory such as politics or race, or are themselves polarized figures. The Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor experienced death threats, severe harassment, and an alt-right media drubbing after a giving a 2017 Hampshire College commencement address critical of President Donald Trump. And the commander-in-chief is not immune from commencement controversies: Former President Barack Obama faced stiff opposition when he gave the 2009 commencement address—and got an honorary degree—at the University of Notre Dame. Anti-abortion groups railed that his pro-choice stance—and his administration’s efforts to make birth control more available—should have made him persona non grata at the Catholic institution.
The flap over President Obama’s appearance was textbook commencement controversy, with the speech both widely anticipated and roundly protested. His remarks were similarly textbook commencement address, showcasing Obama’s signature conciliatory style, complete with jokes, a Martin Luther King, Jr., quote (in place of Socrates), self-deprecation, and nods to the home team and Catholic leadership. Obama also trotted out the obligatory charge to young graduates, in this case “to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it.”
Obama spoke of a letter he got from a doctor who questioned his assumption that every abortion opponent was a “right-wing ideologue.” Obama said: “After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that—when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe—that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
Identifying himself a man who prays and as one who will talk with his detractors, Obama nailed the quintessential commencement statement. With its lofty claims of shared identity and values, President Obama’s Notre Dame speech articulated both the “American way” and a way forward: civility amid deep-seated difference.