When 3 million college students in America don graduation caps and gowns this spring, their excitement will be tinged with jittery unease.
From relentless disputes over racism and free speech at universities to the broader national election of a controversy-riddled president, and all the chaos that has followed it on campuses and beyond, this year’s seniors—most of whom share progressive values and feel a sense of global citizenry—will graduate into adulthood with more worry on their minds than any other class in recent memory.
None of this has been lost on the organizers of commencement ceremonies across the US. The crop of graduation speakers for the class of 2017 tells a clear tale of particular worry and restlessness amongst students who are about to head off into an uncertain future—and of schools’ attempts to reassure them of what is to come.
Mark Zuckerberg, who has been trying to understand his countrymen better in the wake of an election that his own company may or may not have influenced, will deliver the commencement address on May 25 at Harvard, which he left after his own sophomore year when his social-media startup, Facebook, took off. Bernie Sanders will speak at New York’s Brooklyn College on May 30. The former Democratic candidate for US president went to school there in 1960, before transferring to the University of Chicago.
Joe Biden, who parlayed a long Senate career and a scandalous presidential campaign of his own into broad affection among young people who saw him as America’s uncle during his two terms at Barack Obama’s vice president, will speak at the commencement ceremony for Morgan State University in Maryland on May 20, and again the following week at graduation exercises for Cornell University in upstate New York.
And at Wellesley College, the women’s college where Hillary Clinton graduated in 1969, who better to deliver a message of strength in the face of adversity than Clinton herself? That’s who Wellesley’s students chose as their commencement speaker; answering their call, Clinton will address the women at their May 26 graduation ceremony.
If college is ideally all about exposing young minds to radical new thoughts, having graduation speakers who espouse views that comfort progressives—especially in the wake of of the UK’s Brexit vote and America’s election of Donald Trump—could be seen, in some ways, as the ultimate type of coddling that many people in the pro-Trump camp accuse liberal universities of engaging in.
This Friday, at one of the year’s first big graduation ceremonies, Sheryl Sandberg took the stage at Virginia Tech to deliver a tender speech on loss and grief. It was a fitting topic for the times, but also for the Facebook chief operating officer herself and the students she spoke to. Sandberg just published a new book about finding resilience in the wake of her husband’s death two years ago, and Virginia Tech just passed the 10-year anniversary of a shooting by a troubled student who killed 32 people during a rampage in 2007. “We are stronger than we ever imagined,” Sandberg said, reminding her audience that “you know what it means to come together, to pull together, to grieve together, and most importantly, to overcome together.”
Even comedian Will Ferrell, speaking May 12 at the University of South California, struck a serious tone—if only for a short while—to tell USC’s seniors that “no matter how cliché it may sound, you may never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the two signs of emotional intelligence.”
We can expect to hear similar messages of encouragement delivered from the likes of talk show icon Oprah Winfrey (at Skidmore College on May 20, and Smith College on May 21) and Apple CEO Tim Cook (MIT, June 9), among other A-list speakers scheduled to appear at forthcoming graduation ceremonies around the country.
“Students are at a particular developmental stage where they’re looking for heroes,” says Belle Liang, a psychology professor at Boston College. “Good speakers won’t just paint a pretty picture about the current situation, saying things are what they are. They’re telling students, ‘You have some power to make a difference. You’re not a victim of your circumstances. You are now released to go do good work.'”
The great show is—foremost—a show
The first commencement at Harvard was held in 1642. For a time, the event was marked by a feast. By 1797, the ceremony had become more involved, featuring, as the university notes on its website, “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.”
Though animals and costumes are no longer the norm, American colleges’ graduation ceremonies still carry a tinge of that 18th-century ostentatiousness. In the past few decades, the once-modest idea of a notable graduation speaker has transformed from a simple sending-off to an academic-themed show of shock and awe.
Famous speakers do a world of good for colleges. They draw media attention, raising a school’s profile to applicants and alumni donors alike. Speakers like Oprah, even if they are costly, boost the excitement of students and families, who often travel long distances to see their loved ones graduate. It is not the time when most schools will seek out a rebel or provocateur.
“The polarization of the country trickles down into commencement speeches, and schools were already cautious,” Michael Frick, CEO of booking company Speaking.com, tells Quartz.
There have been exceptions to the rule, like the commencement speech address by lightening-rod US education secretary Betsy DeVos, who spoke this week at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University, and drew relentless jeers from students as well as demands for the school’s president to resign. Seeking to avoid a repeat disaster, Texas senator John Cornyn, who like DeVos has been an ally of Trump’s, recently canceled his planned graduation speech at another black university.
Clinton and Sanders are more reflective of the audiences at the schools where they’ll be speaking, and are therefore a safer bet. Meanwhile, Trump himself is giving his first presidential commencement speech at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia—where he no doubt will be offering a sense of reassurance about the world to his supporters.
“All of us are paying more attention, students included, to authority figures in our lives,” says Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We are hungry for role models, and ones that show us we can be successful.”
This year at UC-Berkeley: not Coulter or Yiannopoulos
“We are hungry for role models, and ones that show us we can be successful.” In the wake of an exhaustive election season, American universities have been besieged by racial unrest, free speech debates, and clashes over the need for safe spaces and unity. A speech that conservative author Ann Coulter was scheduled to deliver at the University of California-Berkeley was canceled recently in response to student protests. It was a similar story for her fellow right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, who was evacuated from the famously activist campus in February after his planned speech there triggered a riot.
Few schools, even those committed to preserving freedom of speech and the academic tradition of vociferous disagreement, are looking to incite that kind of upset at their graduation ceremonies. (The invited speaker at Berkeley’s May 13 graduation ceremony is Iranian-American actor and standup comic Maz Jobrani, a Berkeley alumnus.) Even schools that invited political figures to this year’s festivities are generally seeking ones who reflect their student bodies, or at least their public values.
Yale, which was on a hearty political streak for a while—the Ivy League school’s three most recent graduation speakers were Biden, former US secretary of state John Kerry, and former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power—this year invited baseball executive Theo Epstein to deliver the commencement address on May 21. The Yale alumnus led the Red Sox to a historic World Series victory in 2004 as the team’s general manager; he was 30 at the time, making him the youngest GM in baseball ever to win a championship. In 2016, as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, he led his new team to its first World Series championship in 108 years.
By inviting role models and culturally reflective figures like Sandberg, Epstein, and Clinton to serve as graduation speakers, colleges are sending a message in response to students: We see you. We hear you. This is for you.
Despite all the criticisms one could level at it, the trend of celebrity graduation speakers does, then, carry with it some good: The possibility to offer genuine, worthwhile, and well-noted encouragement, especially in a time of general chaos. If the responsibility of a university is to send its students off, confident and prepared, for the real world, then a graduation speaker is given the final opportunity—or, arguably, the responsibility—to make that happen. This year’s speakers do not take up an easy task.