Grad Speakers Mix Politics With Pomp

Most college graduates don caps and gowns, expecting to hear words of wisdom on their big day. But lately, commencement speakers have been using the venue to express political views.

"I think that the graduation ceremony podium has been abused," said David Salisbury, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute (search) in Washington. "People have used it for advancing political causes, and I don't think that's the appropriate forum for that type of content."

Several offended North Carolina State University students walked out on Phil Donahue (search) after he made politically charged comments at their graduation on May 17.

According to a local news station, Donahue said the basic liberties of citizens are being undermined by a "trend toward to the sword rather than a trend toward civility."

He also jabbed President Bush, saying, "only Congress can declare war, and not just one man, the president."

Not only were some grads upset, but school Chancellor Marye Anne Fox expressed regret over the remarks.

Invited "to provide an inspirational message to our graduates, Mr. Donahue chose instead to use our ceremonies as a platform for a speech better suited for a political audience," Fox, who was science adviser to President Bush when he was governor of Texas, told the Associated Press.

New York Times reporter Chris Hedges (search) was forced to make an abbreviated speech at the Rockford College graduation in Illinois this month after protests erupted when he criticized U.S. policy toward Iraq.

"We are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power and security," Hedges said. "But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves."

Some who are upset over the increasingly political nature of graduation speeches say speakers should stick to their traditional role.

"The purpose of a commencement address is to address the students, congratulate them and provide some sort of advice for their future lives," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

Reilly's group protested speakers invited by over 15 Catholic colleges this year, including political commentator Chris Matthews (search), New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (search) and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer (search). The group opposes these individuals' support of issues such as abortion, homosexual rights and assisted suicide.

"Colleges increasingly are selecting commencement speakers based on how high-profile they may be," Reilly said. "They're putting prestige over the purpose of the commencement ceremony."

Prominent political figures like first lady Laura Bush (search) and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) have spoken at graduation ceremonies without using the podium to espouse their political views.

When addressing students at the University of Missouri at Columbia Agricultural School, Cheney talked about his own graduation from college and advised students to be prepared for unexpected turns in life. He did not mention U.S. policy or the war in Iraq.

Bloomberg also left politics at home when he addressed graduates at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y. He encouraged them to work every job as if it's their dream vocation.

And Treasury Secretary John Snow (search) chose to try to inspire the students he spoke at the University of Toledo. "The same values that got you to this commencement will get you anywhere you want to go," he said. "No matter what the government's policies, in America, you always take charge of your own future."

And unlike some Hollywood celebrities who have used public events to express political views, actress Meryl Streep (search) offered words of inspiration to graduates at the University of New Hampshire.

"Put blinders on to those things that conspire to hold you back, especially the ones in your own head," she said. "Guard your good mood. Listen to music every day, joke and love and read more for fun, especially poetry."

But with such history-changing events going on around the world, should speakers ignore the headlines altogether?

"There is no one particular right answer," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council of Education. "We live in challenging times, so it's very much to be expected that well-known individuals asked to speak will talk about contemporary topics. In the current environment, that can mean complex and controversial issues."

Hartle added that college graduates ought to be able to deal with opposing views.

"If they do agree with the speaker, that's terrific. If they don't, that's fine," he said. "Some will be very controversial, some will be forgotten a half hour after they've been given."