Monday, March 4, 2013

What Is the Message Behind the Choice of Commencement Speakers?

For two years in a row now, Harvard has chosen a television celebrity as its Commencement speaker. Last year it was Fareed Zakaria, who, happily, gave his address a few weeks BEFORE it came out that he had plagiarized a magazine article from a Harvard professor. The venerable John Lewis, who was receiving an honorary degree at the same time (and who is in the news again this week, reliving the sixties) sat and listened.

This year, it's Oprah Winfrey.

I am sure she is an inspiration, though I can't quite get out of my mind the image of her with the wheelbarrow full of fat. The car giveaways and so on. She has given away a ton of money for good causes, to be sure.

And I suppose we will again have some noble, courageous, self-sacrificinng folks also receiving honorary degrees as they sit listening in polite silence to the self-promoting, wealthy television celebrity.

Is that what the stage once occupied by Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Ralph Ellison, John F. Kennedy, U Thant, Vaclav Havel, Alan Paton, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, and David Souter is going to be used for in the future?

Well, to be fair, I have cherry picked the list. Some of the choices have not turned out so well. My year it was the Shah of Iran. And I admit to having been pretty skeptical about J. K. Rowling, who gave one of the best addresses I have ever heard, for Commencement or anything else.

Here's hoping Oprah lives up to that standard. She will fill the house to be sure.


  1. You would think that Harvard would get its act together and provide accurate information on "the list." I don't believe Bob Rubin got an LL.B. 1964

    Sam Spektor

    1. Odd. The online directory says he received an honorary Doctor of Laws (which I suppose would be an LL.D.) in 2001, to go with his earned A.B. (1960). It seems that the 1964 LL.B. mentioned in the list refers to his degree from Yale Law School.

  2. Harvard has plenty of awards and honors for entertainers such as the Hasty Pudding Man/Woman of the Year and the Class Day speaker. I think that it demeans the work that all the students have done and the sacrifices that their parents have made to present as a Commencement speaker a daytime talk show host. The late talk show host Merv Griffin created Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, two shows which boosted his net worth to over $1 billion. If he had been asked to speak at Commencement, there would have been a palace revolt at Mass. Hall.