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Celebrity worship takes over the college graduation ceremony

Reuters/Mark Blinch
Diplomas, what diplomas? James Franco is here.
By Amy X. Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In a few weeks’ time, America’s colleges and universities will send off a new graduating class. Tradition dictates that these schools invite public figures—often politicians, academics, intellectuals—to campus to impart their worldly wisdom and advice on fresh-faced seniors.

So it’s not clear what to make of the fact that the US’s most venerated and elite colleges, this year, are opting for Hollywood celebrities.

Here’s a sampling of the graduation speakers chosen by top-tier schools across the country to address the class of 2016:

Steven Spielberg (director)
Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer/actor behind “Hamilton” on Broadway)
James Franco (actor)
Matt Damon (actor)
Ken Burns (documentary filmmaker)
Seth Meyers (comedian/talk show host)
Johns Hopkins
Spike Lee (director)
Hank Azaria (voice actor for “The Simpsons”)
University of Georgia
Ryan Seacrest (television host)

Whether the celebrity mania is due to student demand or a desire on schools’ part to draw bigger crowds to campus, Hollywood and higher education are sure getting cozy.

With the ceremonies still more than a month away, many schools (like the majority of those in the eight-college Ivy League) have yet to publicize their speakers. But the people who’ve been announced thus far reveal something of an odd trend: elite universities seem to be increasingly hunting for big celebrity names—particularly those in the entertainment industry—to come to campus.

It’s not a novel concept for celebrities to take the graduation podium. Tom Hanks gave Yale’s commencement address in 2011, Natalie Portman spoke at Harvard last year, and Oprah has rounded the circuit at several schools now. This year’s slate of speakers just has more glitz and glamour than usual.

Not all elite schools will be seeing stars this year: the University of California-Berkeley has chosen Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, and Princeton will host novelist Jodi Picoult. Yet it’s smaller, less-recognized schools that have netted serious figures like Michelle Obama.

In any case, college graduations today are still a lot less spectacular than they used to be. Take one of Harvard’s early commencement ceremonies:

In 1797, a live elephant was brought from Providence, Rhode Island, to be exhibited at commencement, along with people dressed as mermaids and mummies, and displays of two-headed calves.

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