The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: April 25, 2003
Commencement times big name business
By ARTHUR JONES
There was a buzz around Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles recently that there might be an honorary doctorate for actor Mel Gibson come commencement time.
Hed be a delightfully controversial selection for a Catholic university for several reasons, not least that hes currently building a 600-seat Tridentine church in Malibu, Calif. (His latest, self-funded, $25 million movie, Passion -- the story of Christs Passion with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin, no subtitles -- promises to generate interest among the clinically curious plus develop a cult following of some sort.)
Its awfully hard, if one is in the commencement speaker invitation business, to select a safe notable. Indeed, its hard to guarantee that this years hero wont become next years villain.
There was that 1972 Fordham University appearance by U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. He seemed sound at the time. It was only later the unrepentant Waldheim refused to apologize for his past as a Nazi officer. (Scandal isnt a complete barrier: President Bill Clinton had 100 invites in 1996, accepted three; and in 1999, undoubtedly from a smaller pool, also accepted three.)
Even commencement speakers of no note or notoriety can create uproar.
The problem facing Catholic universities -- and others -- is that while there are murmurings of administrations wanting to move away from the high profile, the students apparently want big names.
Georgetown University students were severely disappointed by the poor quality of the universitys 2002 speakers. The campus newspaper, The Hoya, encouraged students themselves to use family connections to upgrade the selection, and urged the university to focus on a single graduation ceremony with a truly big name rather than the current myriad ceremonies at the various schools.
Georgetowns graduation speakers list last year included a college president (at the College of Arts and Sciences); the head of a genomic research institute (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences); the president-CEO of a world-girdling investment operation filled with ex-government officials (School of Business); a leading congresswoman (School of Foreign Service); and two mayors -- New Yorks Rudolph Giuliani and Washington, D.C.s Anthony Williams (School of Law).
In 1998, when some graduating Notre Dame students complained that South Bend Mayor Joseph Kernan (now Indiana lieutenant-governor) wasnt prestigious enough, the universitys South Bend neighbors blasted, in letters to the editor, the snot-nosed intellectuals who didnt think a dedicated public servant and war hero sufficiently worthy.
Its not always the neighbors. Some universities have to duck when powerful alumni weigh-in to castigate the selection, though in all probability the more conservative the speaker the less likely the alumni will be heard from.
The Catholic University of America didnt duck controversy in 2002 when it invited Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft. In his address, civil liberties trasher Ashcroft even mentioned the recently deceased labor priest and advocate for the poor, Msgr. George Higgins, by name. (I havent yet been to Georges grave to see if he spun in it.)
Catholic universities basically cant win.
In 2000 one Catholic right-wing organization contended that 14 of the nations 235 Catholic institutions of higher education the previous year had inappropriate commencement speakers. Most of those named, from the Childrens Defense Funds Marian Wright Edelman (Duquesne University) to U.S. Ambassador to Italy Thomas Foglietta (Cabrini College, Radnor, Pa.) were less than purely pro-life on abortion.
Notre Dames Dennis Brown, associate director of news and information, told NCR a speakers abortion stance becomes very important on a Catholic campus. Pro-choice speakers tend to create controversy.
Its said some universities would like to scrap the honorary degree and big names business altogether in favor of lower key people relevant to the universities mission. Plus perhaps the local wealthy (which wouldnt rule out Mel Gibson, who is seriously rich).
Hes also highly moral. He was the Scots warrior in Braveheart who wore underpants. See the scene of him leaping down from the castle -- Hessian long johns under his kilt.
Its just about time now that universities will be startling -- or not -- the world with their selections. Of the Mel Gibson potential selection, the Loyola Marymount spokesman said, Ive not heard about it.
Maybe the whole idea is a bit dotty. Practically no graduate of an age to require health membership can remember who the commencement speaker was anyway.
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003
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