The Last Word

February 7, 2013 Features

Rollins seniors never get commencement speaker bragging rights. Will a big name ever give the address to graduates?

Last May, Steve Carell gave the commencement address at Princeton. “You are young,” he said to the crowd of last year’s graduates. “And because of that, you are wrong.” His other words of advice? “Remember that the words ‘regime’ and ‘regimen’ are not interchangeable. And when you eat out, tip on the entire check, don’t subtract the tax first.”

Other well known celebrities and public figures, such as Jane Lynch, Katie Couric, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered their words of wisdom and good wishes to thousands of graduating seniors last year.

Rollins’ 2012 commencement speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences was Martha J. Kanter. Unlike the aforementioned commencement speakers, her name didn’t really ring a bell.

“When they told me who the speaker was, I had no idea who she was,” Amanda Bartling ‘12 said.

She’s actually the Undersecretary of Education. A noble title, but not detectable on most college students’ radar.

So why doesn’t Rollins seek out more wellknown individuals? Graduates persevere through four (sometimes five) grueling years of academia to pick up those hard-earned diplomas; don’t they deserve someone cool and funny like Steve Carell, cracking jokes and performing an entertaining address? The one word answer: tradition.

As an institution, Rollins has always made it a point to invite commencement speakers who do not charge a fee for their commitment. Buzz worthy names that students would be proud to brag about, like Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Colbert, and Bono, can cost an institution upwards of $50,000, a large lump of cash for a ten minute speech. But even still, shouldn’t Rollins ditch tradition and join in on the college rat race to snatch up the most
impressive commencement speaker each year?

In reality, the school isn’t alone in maintaining a policy of not offering compensation for commencement speakers. According to the president of Speakers Platform, a bureau dedicated solely to representing professional keynote, motivational, and celebrity speakers, only 30% of colleges and universities in the U.S. pay people to come in and bestow their worldly philosophies upon graduating classes.

“If we made the switch to paying for commencement speakers, it would have to be an institutional discussion,” President Lewis Duncan said. “The board [of Trustees] and myself need to be sure that students’ tuitions go towards funding student educations.”

But surely Rollins could find it in its own funds to sponsor yearly speakers that are popular amongst students? A school as old as ours must have a hefty endowment that could foot the bill.

But surely Rollins could find it in its own funds to sponsor yearly speakers that are popular amongst students? A school as old as ours must have a hefty endowment that could foot the bill.

Harvard’s financial endowment: $32 billion. Their commencement speaker last year: Fareed Zakaria, TIME editor at large and CNN’s host of Fareed Zakaria GPS. Yale’s endowment: $19 billion. Their 2012 speaker: Barbara Walters, ABC News correspondent.

“We don’t have a billion dollar endowment,” Duncan said. Rollins’ endowment: $350 million. “As an institution we are financially healthy, but not wealthy.”

But at the end of the day, Rollins doesn’t maintain its commemcement tradition because of the money. What would it say about the school, as an institution of higher learning, if it dished out thousands of dollars for awe-inspiring graduation speeches that included Hallmark card lines like . “There is no reason not to follow your heart,” and “The most difficult chains to break are the ones inside us” (both of which came from a selection of The Huffington Post’s top 10 2012 commencement speeches by celebrities)? President Duncan and the Board of Trustees select a speaker based upon how they live their lives, not their celebrity status. Whoever is selected to speak at commencement should be accepting the offer not for financial benefit, but because they see it as an extension of their professional and social role. The speaker should be able to stand before the crowd of graduates and be a living role model of what a senior should aspire to have post-commencement: an exemplary liberally educated life. And maybe, in the scheme of things, that’s better than a Conan O’Brian speech.

Rollins’ 2010 speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences was Leonard L. Abess, CEO of City National Bank of Florida, Miami branch director of the Federal Reserve, vice chairman of the University of Miami Board of Trustees, and a member of the trustee service committee for the University’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Mentioned in President Obama’s address to the Joint Session of Congress in Feb. 2009, Abess was in Time Magazine’s list of “100 Most Influential People in the World”, named “Best Boss” in Reader’s Digest’s Best of America issue, and is a member of the World Wildlife Fund’s National Advisory Council. In his speech to that year’s graduates, Abess recalled the time when Oprah’s producers called him to come on the show right when he was spending time with his family on their farm in Vermont. He did what most would consider a cardinal sin. He denied Oprah. “Fame is fleeting,” he told 2010’s graduates. “It fills your ego but not your heart.”

If Rollins were to pay a famous face to come to campus, the excitement and attention of it all would be fleeting, a moment a graduate wouldn’t think twice about two, five, or ten years down the road. Although alumni may not be able to recall their commencement speaker by name, hopefully they’ll be able to recall the example they set.

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