At commencement, sit for a last lecture

Many commencement speakers are coming under fire, but they often share important messages.

Martha Pietruszewski

For those of you who have been reading my columns over the last few years, I wanted to let you know that I’m finally graduating.
 
 
Commencement is an exciting time for many reasons. Best of all, sitting through a hot ceremony with a potentially controversial speaker is always intriguing. 
 
 
Maybe I’m the only one who still gets inspired by great speeches, but I’m actually looking forward to sitting through a commencement address this year. Barbara Mowry, the CEO of GoreCreek Adivsors, will speak to my class. She’s a powerful public figure who has made an impact in the world of customer loyalty innovations (she helped pioneer the MileagePlus frequent flyer program, for example), and that’s not something to take lightly.
 
 
However, at Scripps College in California, many faculty members are boycotting the speaker for this year’s ceremony: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. 
 
 
Scripps faculty say they’re concerned about comments Albright made regarding the deaths of half a million Iraqi children — in 1996, she said their deaths were a price worth paying in return for United States-led sanctions on Iraq. 
 
 
Albright is merely the latest in a very long list of controversial commencement speakers, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, James Franco and Ben Stein. 
 
 
Yet banning or protesting controversial speakers means you’ll miss out on the advice they can offer your class. For example, Albright’s statement about Iraqi children should concern us, but she had to make hard calls as secretary of state. Thus, while I think the protest against her speech is rooted in a legitimate grievance, I also think Albright as a speaker could have very important messages for students.  
 
 
It’s not prudent to judge someone on their past actions — a quote from 20 years ago doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad person, much less a person from whom we can’t learn anything. Most of the time, commencement speakers present thought-provoking ideas, no matter how controversial the speaker’s history may be. 
 
 
For example, there have been many extremely powerful commencement speeches which our culture still remembers years later. Steve Jobs addressed the graduating class of Stanford in 2005. His last line from the speech was, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” These lines have inspired me all throughout college, even though Steve Jobs has a storied past.
 
 
I do understand that certain speakers’ past acts may horrify us, but these speakers want you to learn about yourself. By listening to them, perhaps you can even learn not to make the same mistakes they did.
 
 
I urge you all to think critically and to engage with viewpoints that challenge your opinions. If you dislike your commencement speaker, use that opportunity to explain to people why you’re upset. Speak up, think differently — and then, when the time comes, listen to what your commencement speaker has to say. 
 
 
I’ll be listening to mine, and I’ll see you onstage in May, friends. 
 
 
Martha Pietruszewski welcomes comments at [email protected]