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Posted at 01:44 PM ET, 05/13/2011

Stevie Wonder delights, while John Boehner joins list of commencement speakers under fire


Speaker of the House John Boehner. (KEVIN LAMARQUE - REUTERS)

Correction: This post originally used information stating that Worcester Polytechnic Institute students planning to not attend the commencement speech given by ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson would reportedly not be allowed to return for their diplomas. Students who choose not to hear Tillerson speak will be allowed to join the ceremony once his speech is finished. The post has been updated to reflect this.

The choice of commencement speaker can make the difference between a very boring college graduation ceremony and one to remember. Some speakers will naturally delight audiences, like honorary degree recipient Stevie Wonder, who surprised Tulane graduates by performing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” (Watch video below)

But other speakers don’t get such warm receptions. Among this year’s controversial speakers are House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson .

Boehner is expected to deliver the commencement address at Catholic University in Washingto, D.C. Saturday amid criticism from some faculty of Catholic colleges over his proposed budget cuts. “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress,” reads the open letter, signed by nearly 80 academics, including 30 members of Catholic’s own staff. The signers aren’t asking for the Republican to back out, but rather to rethink his stances, which they say are “particularly cruel to pregnant women and children.”

More than 100 University of Michigan law school students walked out of their May 7 graduation to protest speaker Sen. Rob Portman, who opposes gay marriage. “We are concerned about the message Michigan Law is sending by giving an anti-gay rights speaker the honor of marking what should be a joyful occasion for every member of the graduating class,” a letter from a group of alumni to the dean read.

Graduate Andrew Selbst gave his reason for walking out on his blog: “The legal profession has simply moved past the point where LGBT rights are just another political issue, instead recognizing that discriminating against any group of people based on who they are is simply unacceptable in today's society.” Watch Selbst and his classmates walk out of their graduation below:

Eco-conscious students and facility members at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have the option to listen to an alternative commencement speaker Saturday instead of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Students who plan to attend the alternative address given by Richard Heinberg, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, will be allowed to join the commencement ceremony after Tillerson speaks. WPI has acknowledged that ExxonMobil donated $1.3 million in funding for K-12 outreach programs.

“To choose the CEO of ExxonMobil as the speaker - to me, it doesn't align with that statement that we are concerned with the ethical implications of our energy use,” Linnea M. Palmer Paton, a graduating senior, told the Worcester Telegram.

Wearing red armbands, a group of students and alumni at Colorado University-Boulder protested speaker Chipotle CEO Steve Ells because he hasn’t signed the Campaign for Fair Food , which promotes fair farm laborer practices, at their May 6 graduation. A Chipotle spokesperson responded to the Huffington Post:“While students certainly have the right to protest, Chipotle is driving more positive change in the food supply than any other restaurant company, including our use of naturally raised meat .., our commitment to local and organically grown produce, our increasing use of dairy from pasture raised cows, and our use of Florida tomatoes that come exclusively from growers that have signed on to the CIW’s program.”

Of course, there is a long history of protests over commencement speakers. The most notable from recent history is the oppostion Catholic groups showed to President Obama’s selection as commencement speaker at Notre Dame because of his views on abortion.

If reading about these controversial commencement speakers has given you ideas about what you’d want to say to this year’s grads, go over to the Post’s On Leadership blog and share your words of advice.

By  |  01:44 PM ET, 05/13/2011

 
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