Addressing Commencement

LEIPZIG, GERMANY - AUGUST 30: Graduates in gown and caps celebrate their graduation at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management on August 30, 2014 in Leipzig, Germany. A total of 167 students in various Masters programs of business management graduated today, including the regular MBA program, whose students are 80% from foreign countries, while the more advanced graduate programs have a higher percentage of German-born students. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)
Graduates in gown and caps celebrate their graduation at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management on August 30, 2014 in Leipzig, Germany. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images) Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

As we reflected on this year’s collection of college graduation speeches, we weren’t sure whether the message was good news or bad.

The seemingly good news is that there were far fewer disinvitations to speakers than there were in 2014. Last year, Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were among the 15-odd speakers whose campus invitations were officially rescinded or who voluntarily withdrew following campus protests.

Apparently, this year the only major protest to a commencement speaker was directed at Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, whose allegedly “homophobic comments” disturbed students at upstate Le Moyne College—a Jesuit institution. Despite a petition signed by 613 students, out of some 3,600 on campus, the cardinal spoke and was awarded an honorary degree.


The purpose of college education is intellectual exploration and personal discovery. It includes exposure to new, difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.


The less good news is that much of what has emanated from college campuses this past year focused on micro-aggressions and trigger warnings. Calls for “safe spaces”—complete with cookies, Play-Doh, and videos of frolicking puppies—distort the purpose of a college education.

The purpose of college education is intellectual exploration and personal discovery. It includes exposure to new, difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable ideas. College is a transition from adolescence to the harsh realities of adulthood, a preparation to take on real challenges.

Sadly, all of that is becoming less and less of a reality on far too many college campuses. At Columbia University recently, four students wrote an Op-Ed for the campus newspaper decrying the teaching of Ovid’s classic Metamorphoses. The students’ complaint was that the professor failed to provide adequate trigger warnings to the poem’s depictions of violence, chaos and rape.

That few commencement addresses attracted much media attention is not surprising. The messages to these overly sensitive souls typically ranged from follow your passion to make a difference in the world; appropriately delivered with varying degrees of passion and anecdotes from the speaker’s personal experience. (So kudos to Cardinal Dolan for imploring graduates to “run the other way” as the 9/11 first responders did.) But with so little political diversity present—some would say allowed—on our college campuses, there were few distinctive messages heard.

Perhaps that is why actor Robert De Niro’s commencement address to the NYU Tisch School attracted so much attention. Mr. De Niro told the graduates, “You made it—and you’re fucked.” That may be the appropriate place to begin contemplating the distorted state of higher education.

Addressing Commencement