The Best and Worst of Commencement Speakers

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College graduation season is in full swing on college campuses across the country, and here at The Atlantic Wire, we're taking stock of the most memorable moments from this year's crop of commencement speakers. Who was boring? Who was funny? Who was utterly incongruous? Here's your first batch of Commencie winners.

Biggest Bringdown...Sara Stadler, Emory Law School

As a rule, commencement speeches that include the phrase "get over it" tend not to go over well, but Stadler, an Emory law professor, also managed to work in "you might also have to learn to be a giver, and not a taker,""givers tend to be happy people" and "takers are never satisfied." (Skip to the 41:25 mark for the good stuff)


Strongest Endorsement of Hand Holding...Amy Poehler, Harvard

Poehler 's  Class Day speech was jokey and fun, but she also offered graduates some earnest advice, most of which involved hand-holding. She supports it, and explained why several times.

  • "You never know what is around the corner unless you peek. Hold someone's hand while you do it. You will feel less scared."
  • "You're all here today because someone gave you strength. Helped you. Held you in the palm of their hand.God, Allah, Buddha, Gaga."
  • "When you feel scared, hold someone's hand and look into their eyes. And when you feel brave, do the same thing."

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Best Ann Curry Joke...Richard Stengel, Wheaton College

When the Today reporter gave the commencement speech at Wheaton College in Massachusetts last year, she talked about famous alumni from a different Wheaton College, one in Illinois. Which is why Stengel, editor of Time, pretty much had to open his speech like this.

Before I give a really important speech like this, I like to consult with colleagues of mine in the media. So I Googled Ann Curry and then I called her. And I said I'm going to talk about the media today and I wanted to talk to her about it. And we're talking for a bit and she was weirdly uninformed about what I wanted to talk about, and I told her so. And she said, "Well, I'm Ann Curry from Springfield, Illinois. I'm an insurance claims adjuster."

Well, imagine my surprise. The wrong Ann Curry.


Best Case For Higher Education in a Hypothetical Speech...Mike Barthel, The Awl

Mike Barthel was not an actual graduation speaker, but the commencement address he wrote for The Awl contained the best endorsement of the college experience we heard this spring

 Your undergraduate degree wasn't about learning how to do a specific job. It was about learning how to do a job in general, and how to be a decent human being.


Strangest Ending...Billie Jean King, University of Vermont

There's no video of the tennis legend's commencement address last weekend in Burlington, so we may never know where she hid the racket she used to hit tennis balls into the crowd or why she hit 12 of them. We do know why Elton John's Philadelphia Freedom was playing on the loudspeakers--because he's a personal friend. (She mentioned it earlier.) Instead, here are some descriptions of King's conclusion from those at the scene.

  • University of Vermont Communications

Closing out her time at the podium, King pulled out a racket, and with Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" playing on the speakers -- a song he dedicated to her -- she lobbed more than a dozen tennis balls to the crowd."

  • The AP

"["Philadelphia Freedom"] played over the loudspeakers when King concluded her address by hitting more than a dozen tennis balls into the crowd."

  • The Burlington Free Press

"It’s an annual ritual designed to honor distinction, but this year the most distinctive touch came to­ward the end, when the featured speaker concluded her remarks, grabbed a tennis racket, and lobbed balls deep into the crowd....'I almost got a tennis ball,' said Lauren Perry, a bi­ology major from Coventry, R.I., after the ceremony. In­stead, the ball landed in the row behind her. 'She was funny,' Perry said of King.

Most Fair and Balanced...Rex W. Tillerson and Richard Heinberg, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Not every RCI student was comfortable with the idea of Tillerson, ExxonMobil's CEO, speaking at graduation, so school officials compromised, and set up a second ceremony later in the day with Heinberg, the green-friendly, senior fellow-in-residence of the Post Carbon Institute, as speaker. According to the Worcester Telegram, only 26 students opted out

Most Walkouts...Sen. Rob Portman, University of Michigan Law

"Over 100" students in the graduating class walked out on Sen. Rob Portman to protest his anti-gay voting record, according to MSNBC. After looking at the video, we'd say it was more of stroll out.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.