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Pomp and circumstance: Celebrity commencement speakers line up

The spring commencement season is in full bloom, and celebrity speakers are showing up on campuses across the country, prepared and ready to fill graduates’ ears with inspiring words and practical advice. In the midst of economic crisis, commencement speakers are held to an even higher standard as graduates look for inspiration in the face of limited job opportunities.

Movie producers, actors, corporate executives, journalists, talk show hosts, and politicians seem to make the most popular commencement speaker picks-from the prestigious Ivy League schools to small, obscure colleges that rarely rate a mention. 

One of the most well-liked commencement speakers in recent years has been comedian Bill Cosby, charming graduates and their parents from the University of North Carolina to Hampton University, where he showed up in a T-shirt to deliver his speech and remind the crowd that black leaders were "willing to give up their lives to learn to read and write."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs took a different, and some might say more lighthearted, approach when he addressed Stanford University graduates in 2005, telling them to "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish."

This year, Oprah Winfrey addressed Duke University graduates, picking up an honorary doctor of humane letters degree before telling a larger than usual crowd of graduates, "You really haven’t completed that circle of success unless you have helped someone else to move forward." And in her speech to New York University grads, Hillary Clinton turned to them for help. "For those of you who are still looking for jobs, we are hiring a new generation of diplomats," she said.

This year, President Obama was not given the customary honorary degree that goes along with delivering a commencement speech when he spoke to graduates at Arizona State University last week because the university said his "body of work" was not sufficient for the honor. Instead, the Chicago Tribune reported, ASU decided to name its most prestigious financial aid program for the president, calling those who receive the aid "Obama Scholars."

Turning what could have been an awkward moment into a chance to make an inspiring point, Obama told ASU graduates: "I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it, to heartily concur, to affirm that one’s title, even a title like president, says very little about how well one’s life has been led – and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve."

Students often protest when commencement speakers are chosen who they feel don’t adequately represent their aspirations or beliefs. President Obama’s pro-choice stance has many at Notre Dame up in arms about his selection as this year’s commencement speaker. Last year, Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s honorary degree was rescinded and his invitation withdrawn from Northwestern University. And who can forget in 2008, when over 75% of attending students and faculty at Washington University turned their backs in silent protest as Phyllis Schlafly, an opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, received an honorary degree at the school’s commencement?

Regardless of who is chosen to deliver it, most commencement speeches are dispensed with the hope that graduates will be inspired and long remember the words of wisdom coming from someone who, by most standards, has made it. But cartoonist Garry Trudeau made slight fun of the whole idea by once saying, "commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated."

What are the political and social implications of picking a commencement speaker? In an age of looming uncertainties and economic crisis, how important is it for graduates to feel inspired by their commencement speaker? Do you think graduates pay close attention to their speakers? Who "deserves" to speak or to receive an honorary degree? Would you rather have a celebrity or an unknown person deliver a commencement speech? What would you tell graduates if you were asked to deliver a commencement speech?

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