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Commencement must go beyond entertainment


By Philip Gallagher
On May 1, 2012

  • The mussel appetizer was the best part of the meal. Nashrah Rahman/The Justice
  • Nan Pang

I can't count the number of people who have told me how much they want Jon Stewart to come to Brandeis and deliver our commencement address.

Yes, I think Jon Stewart is awesome and funny, but what exactly would he say at graduation that would be so riveting? I watched the commencement address he delivered at the College of William and Mary in 2004, where he is an alumnus.

It was fine.

As expected, he made some jokes-although they were not as funny as I imagined they would be.
It was exciting to watch him speak, but there wasn't much more to it than that.

What concerned me, however, was that the speech struck me as being primarily a performance, instead of an informed oration.

The job of a commencement speaker is to provide thoughtful and worldly advice to the graduating class that is based on their personal and professional experiences; entertainment and theater are always enjoyable but should be nothing more than secondary characteristics of the speech.

Jon Stewart interviews people on a comedy television show and, in my opinion, doesn't have the hands-on experience of making a difference in the world necessary for this type of a speech.

The choice for Brandeis' commencement speaker this year of Deborah Bial '87, however, was a masterstroke, despite some lingering concerns about how well-known she is outside of Brandeis. I am confident that she will deliver a speech that is provocative and inspiring.

When we look for a commencement speaker, we should seek out someone who has accomplished something noteworthy and challenging.

Dr. Bial founded and grew the Posse Foundation, which has sent over 4,000 urban students to college with full-tuition scholarships. For her efforts, Dr. Bial received a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Posse Foundation received a portion of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize winnings.

Dr. Bial has undoubtedly accomplished a tremendous amount that qualifies her to provide the Brandeis graduating class with advice for the future.

Furthermore, given that she herself graduated from Brandeis, I'm sure that seniors will be able to relate to Dr. Bial on a more personal level than they could to someone from outside the University.

The concerns from students that she is not a celebrity incorrectly prioritize the most important qualities of a commencement speaker.

Dr. Bial has experience on the front-lines working to make a positive difference with and for other individuals, an experience that celebrities frequently lack. Having this type of record is more valuable than fame and name-recognition.

People like former President Bill Clinton would be speaking to us from a very comfortable chair, from where he has indirectly impacted the masses.

Dr. Bial is speaking to us at our level, having rolled up her sleeves and changed lives of one person at a time.

The important values that Dr. Bial brings to commencement this year have been muddled at other top-tier colleges, which seem to place a greater emphasis on entertainment and prestige over thoughtful advice. Speeches from past years have consisted largely if not wholly of comedy routines.

These overly dramatic speakers include Conan O'Brien at Dartmouth College in 2011, Seth MacFarlane and Will Ferrell at Harvard University in 2006 and 2003, respectively- though they were not the Commencement Speakers but Class Day speakers, having been invited by Harvard's Senior Class Committee.

In fact, O'Brien, Stewart and MacFarlane all prefaced their speeches by saying how ridiculous it was that they were invited to address the graduating class. O'Brien even gestured to former President George H.W. Bush sitting behind him and asked why a comedy talk show host was being asked to impart wisdom instead of a former U.S.
President and decorated war veteran.

This is not to say that humor has no place in a commencement address.

Ellen DeGeneres gave a very clever speech at Tulane University in 2009, during which she danced through the aisles to Lady Gaga. However, she managed to keep her main message of living life with integrity the focus of almost her entire speech.

At Brandeis, we have not yet had a commencement speaker who placed theater before knowledge, but I am concerned that students who want speakers like Jon Stewart are moving in that direction.

The choice of Dr. Bial this year sets an appropriate tone for the event. Seniors should not be expecting entertainment or comedy from the speech but rather thoughtful advice.
Commencement will not be a performance for applause but a lecture for reflection. Dr. Bial is an ideal speaker to foster this kind of atmosphere.

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