Rutgers, have you forgotten the point of a graduation speaker?


(Mark R. Sullivan / AP)

It's graduation season — time for commencement ceremonies, congratulations and, of course, controversy.

The award for this year's biggest flap goes to Rutgers University, which in the past few days has fumbled its response to the school's commencement speaker replacement. It started Saturday when Condoleezza Rice, just two weeks before the ceremony, backed out of giving the graduation keynote after faculty and students protested her Iraq War involvement while serving as George W. Bush's secretary of state. By Monday afternoon, Rutgers seemed to have resolved the mini-crisis by announcing that former Gov. Thomas Kean would step in.

But it wasn't resolved. Later that night, former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand — who was paralyzed in 2010 and has become a popular inspirational speaker — tweeted that he too was asked to be Rutgers' commencement speaker but that the offer had been rescinded. After the issue exploded in the media on Tuesday, Rutgers president Robert Barchi issued a statement saying that LeGrand would speak at the event after all, and that "it was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker." He will share the stage with Gov. Kean.

This marks yet another brouhaha for a school — and a president — that doesn't need any more controversy. Barchi came under fire for Rutgers's response to the abuse scandal involving former basketball coach Mike Rice as well as for the hiring of current athletic director Julie Hermann. Now, Barchi is in crisis management mode again, releasing his clarification more than 12 hours after LeGrand's original tweet and the ensuing social media firestorm, calling the whole thing a "miscommunication."

In response to questions about why the original press release made no mention of LeGrand, or why LeGrand says Hermann told him the school was going "in another direction," Rutgers spokesman Greg Trevor wrote in an email that the university did not want to proceed with LeGrand's participation "until the president had the opportunity to speak to Eric directly. To do otherwise would be entirely inappropriate. Within minutes of their conversation, [Tuesday’s] statement was issued."

Such damage control shouldn't be necessary for something as ultimately inconsequential — let's face it — as a commencement speaker. Years later, while many graduates will remember who was standing in front of them in cap and gown, few will remember what the speaker said. Despite that, selecting a keynote has become a minefield for college presidents — so much so that one former higher-ed chief wrote recently that "few mistakes ... will be more visible, or more challenging to avoid, than the wrong commencement speaker."

That shouldn't be the case. The most important job for the person at the lectern isn't to generate publicity, or satisfy powerful alumni and trustees, or even make parents feel good about all the dollars they've spent. It doesn't need to be someone high profile, well connected or rich. Quite simply, the point should simply be to inspire the graduating students to do good things with their lives, and with the degrees they've earned and the advantages they're taking with them. 

It's hard to think of someone who could do that better than LeGrand (and by the way, he should make all those other constituents happy, too). Here is a former student who was paralyzed from the shoulders down playing football for the school. A tireless advocate for spinal cord injuries with a remarkable outlook on life, he finished his degree at Rutgers earlier this year despite not being able to hold a pencil or even move his arms.

The annual controversies and PR blunders and cash spent — many commencement speakers earn honoraria in the tens of thousands — seem like needless distractions for university presidents who have much bigger issues on their plate. Maybe next year, Barchi and more of his peers will learn from such episodes and keep it simple. Don't offer honorary degrees or cushy speaker's fees. Choose someone who will be an inspiration to students. And then, don't worry about the rest.

Read also:

The best graduation speeches? You won't even remember

Mike Rice, Tim Pernetti, and the leadership madness at Rutgers

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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