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Why Do Penn State’s Commencement Speakers Suck?

Another year, another list of generally forgettable commencement speakers at University Park. It’s a recurring theme — at least in recent history — to recruit graduate students or faculty to give the spring commencement address for the various colleges.

There are two things worth qualifying in the annual commencement speaker argument. It’s important to note that this year’s speakers are probably quite successful in their respective fields and, in many cases, wonderful Penn Staters. The only thing that is lacking is “celebrity factor.” Second, no one will remember or care about their commencement speaker in 10 or 15 years (or, in this case, maybe even tomorrow). Even so, snagging a big-name commencement speaker is generally seen as a sign of prestige, or a way to set a university apart.

As other universities are landing Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, Tony Blair, Bill Nye, Peyton Manning, and Bill Gates, our individual colleges always seem to choose speakers from within the university. Many of us have enjoyed iconic graduation speeches from the likes of Steve Jobs or David Foster Wallace while perusing Youtube. Indeed, Bill Clinton’s 1996 Penn State address seems all of 18 years ago.

To an extent, I understand why Penn State would want to choose Penn Staters for Commencement, but a question still begs to be answered: Considering we have the largest alumni basis in the world, why are we unable to book bigger names?

“Each college and campus obtains its own speaker for spring commencement, and each has its own process for making that decision. I am not familiar with those individual processes,” Penn State spokeswoman Jill Shockey said. “I was told that this spring the College of Agricultural Sciences opted not to have a commencement speaker.”

Reaching commencement is a prestigious accomplishment for students — one that deserves to be celebrated. Commencement signifies four (or five) years of hard work before graduates go off to work in their respective fields. Yet, the College of Liberal Arts decided to let a student speak instead. The College of Agricultural Sciences doesn’t even have a speaker.

Even Penn State’s commonwealth campuses are able to grab bigger names for graduation speakers. Penn State Lehigh Valley booked actor John Ratzenberger (Cliff Claven from “Cheers”) this year, and Jeffrey Tambor (George Bluth from “Arrested Development”) last year.

What it comes down to is Penn State’s unwillingness to pay speaking fees for commencement speakers.

“Commencement speakers at University Park are not given honoraria for speaking,” Shockey said. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘big name speakers,’ but I do know that Penn State takes seriously the academic nature of commencement events.”

Whether it’s worth shelling out for commencement speakers is worthy of debate, but Penn State no doubt spends money on much worse endeavors. Who knows, maybe with a few less Penn State Lives Here yard signs, University Park can land someone cool next year.

About the Author

Jessica Tully

Jessica Tully is a first-year law student at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. She graduated in May 2014 with degrees in journalism and political science.

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