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This Week in Schadenfreude: Mortarboarded

There are about 4,300 universities in the United States, assuming we include USC. Each of those universities has at least one graduation ceremony each year. Most of them have more than one, and some of them have dozens. To take the UCs, as an example that is particularly familiar to us, it is not practical to have 10,000 people graduate at the same time. So, each college and each professional school usually has its own graduation ceremony. It's also become increasingly common for individual departments to have their own ceremonies, and for student groups (say, Samahang Filipino or the Muslim Students Assocation) to have graduation ceremonies as well. (Z) has known many people who "graduated" 5-6 times over the course of graduation week, though he successfully managed to avoid all but one graduation ceremony for himself (and he didn't particularly want to go to that one).

Part of the custom, when it comes to graduation ceremonies, is to have a graduation speaker. The bigger the name, the better. And when a top-tier university is staging one of its major graduation ceremonies (say, the law school graduation, or the graduation for the college of letters and sciences), they really want a star. This has created a situation where prominent politicians are often engaged to provide the commencement speech. The politician gets a photo-op in academic robes, and a captive audience for whatever they want to say, and sometimes an honorary degree to boot. The school gets a high-profile person they can brag about and, depending on the goals of the administration, perhaps an opportunity for some propagandizing.

Despite the fact that graduation is ostensibly their day, students get virtually no say in all of this. It's hard enough to land a commencement speaker, and then trying to hold some sort of vote would be a logistical nightmare. Further, if a person is rejected by the students, then what does the school do? "Sorry, governor, the students decided to yank the invitation. Sorry about that, and please don't cut our funding! Maybe next year?"

The result of this dynamic is predictable; sometimes students get to spend one of the biggest days of their lives watching as someone they find odious is feted, and treated as some sort of conquering hero. And any sort of pushback is frowned upon, since the commencement speaker is an "honored guest," after all. Plus, the parents and the alums are watching.

This graduation season, however, there have been a number of cases of students deciding that, custom be damned, they weren't going to passively accept an objectionable commencement speaker. Three examples:

A lot of these political graduation speakers are obnoxious people, and while they should leave the politics at the door, they often don't. Meanwhile, university administrations have gotten far too comfortable with not considering the needs and concerns of students, even on a day that is supposed to be for the students. So, we commend those students who clawed a little bit of that power back, and did what they could to graduate on their own terms. (Z)

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