You can call him Dr. Combs.
Rap and music mogul Sean Combs electrified Howard University’s Class of 2014 on Saturday with a commencement speech that was thoughtful, funny and, surprisingly, sentimental.
“Throughout my life, I have rushed through some of my great moments,” he told the crowd, clearly savoring the occasion. “I promised myself if I ever reached this moment I would take my time.”
That’s right folks — the man of many monikers — Sean John, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and very briefly, Swag, has added a new one, now that he has an honorary doctorate from Howard University. Dr. Diddy? Perhaps on informal occasions. But more formally, please call him Dr. Combs.
“Only this family could take one of its sons who already had three name changes and give him a fourth — Dr. Sean Combs.”
Dressed in full graduation regalia, complete with gold tassel on his black cap, Combs told the audience that enrolling at Howard changed his life. And although he left the university before graduating, he never forgot his Howard family.
“It’s good to be home,” he said. “I am humbled to be in such great company.”
Combs’s address marks the beginning of a busy commencement season in the region. American University, the University of the District of Columbia and Shenandoah University were among those also holding commencement ceremonies Saturday. St. John’s College and the College of William and Mary are scheduled to hold their ceremonies Sunday.
Saturday also was a special — but bittersweet day at the University of Mary Washington, where Rebecca J. Ericson and Robin Ericson, the parents of a senior at the university, took the stage to accept a diploma on his behalf. Robert Ericson, 22, died April 18 from complications related to epilepsy. Ericson was an environmental science major and graduate of Fairfax’s W.T. Woodson High school. The university has created a memorial fund in his honor.
At Howard, the controversy over the selection of Combs as a graduation speaker seemed forgotten in the excitement of the day. Some students had been unhappy that the entertainer and philanthropist had been selected; he left Howard before getting a degree.
“I know there was a lot of drama because he didn’t graduate,” said graduate Katherina Brown, 21. “But he was funny and entertaining and kept a smile on our faces.”
Brown said Combs’s personal story and success demonstrates that people can take different paths but still be successful. And, Brown noted, Combs did send a strong message about the importance of education.
Combs himself acknowledged that he was an unconventional choice to speak at a university graduation. (He had asked fans via Instagram for help in crafting his address.)
Turning toward the members of the university’s board of trustees with whom he shared the stage, he quipped that they probably had never heard a commencement speech like his.
But he added with a grin, “It’s time to evolve.”
Despite his success, Combs said there have been times when he wished he’d had a degree.
“If I didn’t leave school early, I would have been more prepared,” he said, recalling moments in board rooms when he wished he’d completed that economics course and memos that would have been more polished had he finished his studies.
In the 1990s, when most of his friends were graduating from Howard, he’d been fired from his first job as talent director at Uptown Records, his girlfriend was 81 / 2 months pregnant, and he had just bought a house in Arizona that he could not afford.
He said he could have given up and let the darkness swallow him. Instead, “I had to decide to be my own light.”
“One day, you’re going to be sitting in the dark like I was, thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ In that moment, I want you to remember the power in you.”
“Nobody is going to take you to the front of the line — you need to push to the front of the line,” he said.
While Combs received much of the attention Saturday, four others also received honorary degrees. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, PepsiCo Chairman and chief executive Indra K. Nooyi, jazz legend Benny Golson and one of the country’s premier organ transplant surgeons, Clive O. Callender, a professor at Howard’s school of medicine, were also honored.
Howard University’s class of 2014 had more than 2,600 members, including the largest number of PhDs in the university’s history.
The celebration marked the end of a difficult year for one of the nation’s premier historically black universities. In October, Sidney A. Ribeau stepped down from the university’s presidency after months of internal debate over the management and financial health of the institution.
Howard’s interim president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, acknowledged that the university had had a tough year.
Said Frederick: “If we weather the storm with grace, we’ll come out the other side that much stronger.