Commencement: Higher Ed’s Last Chance to Think Critically on Behalf of its Graduates

The envelope, please. Broadway has the Tony Awards; Hollywood, the Oscars; and then of course there is the eponymously named Booker Prize. As a species we are fond of handing out honors for accomplishments small and large. Higher education is no different, and this month begins the academy’s own silly season of awards. I am speaking of course of the honorary degrees colleges and universities dangle in front of celebrities, generous donors, politicians and on occasion worthy scholars and artists.

Universities will tell you that they award honorary degrees in order to call attention to the more important occasion of the graduating class’s big day. This not a total fabrication because often times a famous or notorious honorary degree recipient will bring the press to an otherwise lackluster ceremony at a lackluster campus. But it is a rather cruel exploitation of the graduates and their families, because in truth celebrity degree recipients suck time and attention out of festivities that ought truly to focus on the graduates alone. When I graduated from university, my alma mater had a policy, long since abandoned, of not awarding honorary degrees for just this reason: the graduates were the stars of the show.

I confess that all these years later hearing Pomp and Circumstance brings a nostalgic tear to my eye and reminds me of the young woman I once was—full of excitement and wonder about what next the academy had in store for me. That girl hasn’t been around for a while.

Inevitably every year a campus sets the bar for who qualifies as the recipient of an honorary degree at a new low. Some time back, plucky Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, for example, awarded auteur Michael Moore not an honorary degree per say but a platform from which to address the assembled multitude. Moore took his text from an assemblage of half-truths and factual manipulations that managed inflict several wounds in the hands of the administrators oblivious enough to have gone along with bringing the porcine documentarian to campus.

Michael Moore waits patiently on the platform to deliver his Commencement fabrications at Hampshire College.

But if the thought of having to listen to the likes of Michael Moore drone on ad nauseum is enough to make you want to graduate in absentia, then consider the poor men and women about to begin their post-baccalaureate journey through life taking with them their college parting words of one Winnie Mandela.

Winnie Mandela. You read that correctly. The wife Nelson Mandela dumped because there was no reconciling the savagery she rained down upon her opponents. The Winnie Mandela whose bold fashion statements included fiery necklaces of burning tires for her “enemies.” The Winnie Mandela who just last year had this to say about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Bishop Tutu and her ex-husband:

‘What good does the truth do? How does it help to anyone to know where and how their loved ones are killed or buried?
That Bishop Tutu…turned it all into a religious circus came here. He had a cheek to tell me to appear.

‘I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting there because of our struggle and me. Look what they make him do. The great Mandela. He has no control or say any more.

Let's hope Customs officials at JFK confiscate Winnie's jewelry before she gets to JCSU.

That Winnie Mandela will receive an honorary degree this month from Johnson C. Smith University, an institution according to its website:

Founded in 1867 under the auspices of the Committee on Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A [the university] is an independent, private, coeducational institution of higher learning. Located in the rapidly growing metropolis of Charlotte, North Carolina, “Queen City of the South,” this historically African-American university has a residential campus with a familiar atmosphere in which students are stimulated and nurtured by dedicated and caring faculty and staff.

One hopes Winnie is not introduced as a role model for stimulation and nurturing.

One hopes whoever introduces Winnie from the podium has the good sense not to mention the university’s mission, which reads in part

Consistent with its Christian roots, the university recognizes the importance of moral and ethical values to undergird intellectual development and all endeavors. …

The mission of JCSU is to provide an outstanding education for a diverse group of talented and highly motivated students from various ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographical backgrounds…

…, [JCSU] provides an environment in which students can fulfill their physical, social, cultural, spiritual, and other personal needs through which they can develop a compelling sense of social and civic responsibility for leadership and service in a dynamic, multicultural society. Likewise, the university embraces its responsibility to provide leadership, service, and lifelong learning to the larger community.

I take this mission statement at face value. There is no question in my mind the faculty at JCSU have done their very best to deliver to their students and soon-to-be graduates the promise of the university’s mission. No students work harder for their educations than the ones attending urban universities, and no faculties must help their students overcome more mountainous barriers than the faculty who work at urban universities. I have nothing but admiration for these men and women.

This is why I am so thoroughly disgusted that in order to get a passing mention in the newspaper, the suits at JCSU thought it was a good idea to bring this terrorist to campus and in so doing undo in the space of a single commencement what four years of undergirding “moral and ethical values” sought to instill.

Johnson C. Smith University wins the 2011 prize for lowest bar for a Commencement speaker. Which college will win in 2012?

7 thoughts on “Commencement: Higher Ed’s Last Chance to Think Critically on Behalf of its Graduates

  1. Where is the sympathy for the poor, down-trodden faculty who must listen to these endless speeches, year after year, and a faculty who has no say in the selection of speakers? Apparently, the decision is based on which Board of Trustee members want the celebrity autograph.

  2. If a faculty member hasn’t learned after year 2 to bring his iPod to Commencement, then I would say the problem rests with him and not the BOT.

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