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Commencements reveal campus values (Scripps Howard News Service) June 19, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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The commencement season is upon us and, on more than 3,000 college and university campuses, shorts and baseball caps are giving way to gowns and mortarboards. It is a moment of personal accomplishment and family pride, but graduation also provides a rare public look behind the gates of campus life. When the commencement platform is built and the curtains drawn back, we can see something of the value system that has influenced the next generation during the formative years of college.

For 15 years as a university president, I presided over this rite of passage. In fact, friends noted the irony that, having skipped my own college and law school ceremonies, I was resigned to attending nearly 100 of them in my career. The phrase “poetic justice” comes to mind. In any event, I know the drill, and find interesting clues about campus values and the direction of education from snapshots of this year’s commencements.

Commencement should be a happy time, but the radical politics that pervade the campus year-round cannot be banned from the ceremony. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both faces protestors at commencement addresses at Ohio State and Michigan State respectively. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice, ironically the former provost of Stanford and the most powerful African-American woman in the world, saw similar protests at her Stanford speech. At UCLA, students felt that first lady Laura Bush was not qualified to speak at the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences and protested her invitation. U.C. Berkeley, with its radical reputation, could not attract a top-name speaker this year.

The 2002 award for distasteful politics at commencement surely goes to Professor Bell Hooks of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, who condemned many in her audience for “life-threatening conservatism…and the powerful forces of everyday fascism which use the politics of exclusion and ostracism to maintain the status quo.” Whereas most commencement speakers include some optimistic reference about the future, Professor Hooks found that distasteful, noting that “every imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal nation on the planet teaches its citizens to care more for tomorrow than today.”

The growing role of technology in education is also reflected at commencement time. Mexican President Vicente Fox, whose ban on travel outside the country prevented him from delivering one address, nevertheless made another graduation speech via the Internet. Jones International University held its commencement online, inviting students to view Fox’s address over the Internet, and to mingle afterwards for a reception in a chat room. Students at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of New Mexico used new technologies to display personal messages on a screen when they received their diploma, introducing a potential replacement for those masking tape messages on the top of mortarboards.

Sheer persistence in pursuing education and completing the degree is a valuable message at graduation. That director Stephen Spielberg, for example, could have had dozens of honorary degrees, but went back to Long Beach State to complete his bachelor’s degree, is a wonderful example. Less well-known, but equally inspiring, were the single mother of four who finished her 12-year quest for a liberal arts degree at Santa Clara, or the Radcliffe woman who was denied her degree 63 years ago for not passing the requisite swimming test, but collected it this year.

Of course, commencement also reminds us that college is fun, even wacky. They tried, with only limited success, to limit the tortilla throwing at the University of Arizona this year, and beach balls are common fare at outdoor ceremonies. Although it never rains at Harvard’s commencement, it poured this year, prompting new president Lawrence Summers to forego some of this remarks on “veritas” on account of the “humidatis, not to mention frigiditas.” Sandals, flip flops, umbrellas and plastic garbage bags were part of this season’s Harvard commencement regalia.

Unfortunately this is not an easy year for students to leave campus, with a difficult job market awaiting them. Years ago, comedian Bob Hope gave perhaps the best advice of all to graduates: “Don’t go.”

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