The rented robes are itchy, the mortarboard hats make everyone look dopey, and the patience required to snap the perfect picture makes Cubs fans who waited 108 years for a World Series title look unimpressive. College-graduation ceremonies have a lot working against them.
Despite its faults, though, the university-commencement ritual is not one that should be cast aside. It’s of course important to celebrate the completion of a bachelor’s degree, and the literal and figurative pomp and circumstance that play out as degrees are conferred can be quite meaningful. But there’s also the fact that the true star of the day—the one who will grab many of the headlines—is not the student who worked two jobs to pay her way through school. It’s not the student-athlete who woke up at 5 a.m. to lift weights four times a week. It’s not the philanthropic leader who raised $1 million for hungry children while taking five classes.
Instead, it’s someone marginally (or majorly, depending on the school) famous who has deigned to impart wisdom on the freshly minted graduates. And no matter how famous or not the famous person is, the likelihood that he or she will say anything meaningful is a complete gamble. But the commencement speaker is not necessarily at graduation for the graduates. Sure, it’s exciting for students when someone high-profile comes to campus—especially if that person is speaking at an event honoring them. But the commencement speaker’s public profile is not only a statement of a university’s prestige, but also, increasingly, the embodiment of a university’s political ideology. The commencement speaker is a brand extension, whether or not the university intends it to be. And that’s perhaps true this year more than any other in recent memory.