Laslo Boyd: Commencement season
Graduations by their very nature are happy events although the details are not necessarily memorable.
Ask anyone after some reasonable passage of time if they can remember what the commencement speaker said and you are likely to draw a blank stare or a shrug. That doesn't mean that the speakers didn't have thoughtful advice for the graduates; they may have even had bursts of eloquence, funny stories, or interesting personal remembrances.
But, despite the public attention given to who will be speaking at which commencement and the efforts of some universities to attract big name speakers, the day is not really about anyone's remarks.
The graduates are relieved, proud, perhaps tired from partying, and, depending on the state of the job market, ready to "commence" the rest of their lives. The family and friends in the audience are there to share the special day with the graduates and any speeches they hear are only incidental.
Yet, at times, the speaker and reactions to that individual becomes the dominant news item for everyone else. The big story of this year's commencement season will undoubtedly be President Barack Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame University and the protests by various anti-abortion organizations, including a group of Catholic priests who signed a public letter protesting the fact that the university had invited a pro-choice speaker.
There are a lot of different ways to think about what happened at Notre Dame. Certainly the ideas of free speech and the right to protest seem particularly appropriate at an institution of higher learning.
Objecting to a commencement speaker is not a new phenomenon and we should take pride in the fact that we live in a country where this kind of public protest is a legitimate form of political expression.
Using almost the same reasoning, one could also argue that universities should not restrict their invitations only to people whose views are supported by all or most of that particular community. Notre Dame University, its graduates, and everyone associated in whatever way with the institution are not diminished or damaged by hearing a contrary or unpopular set of views.
In many respects, President Obama's participation at the Notre Dame commencement provided a rare national stage for anti-abortion forces. The president travels with an always-present spotlight and the opponents of his pro-choice position were more than happy to grab the opportunity to get a little light shined on them.
To underscore the point, Alan Keyes, who has no particular association with Notre Dame and is best known for having run unsuccessfully for office several times, including in Maryland, managed to get himself arrested as part of the protest at South Bend. That's more attention than Keyes received in all of his political campaigns.
Issue of the day groups
One potential downside for protestors is that their entire group or organization may be defined by the nature of the protest. Demonstrations in the past that turned violent certainly had that effect. Another risk is that the issue of the day will be seen as the only one that group cares about. Unless, for example, those priests are also signing letters and protesting about the death penalty or torture of prisoners or the war in Iraq, their claim to a moral high ground rests on a rather slim foundation.
While Rahm Emanuel has received some criticism for his comment about "never wasting a good crisis," it is certainly the case that Barack Obama never wastes a speaking opportunity. His opponents during the 2008 election tried to dismiss him as merely a good speaker, but he has demonstrated time and again that his words are backed up by thoughtful reflection.
And, at Notre Dame on Sunday, he took the opportunity to try to get past the often shrill and confrontational rhetoric of the abortion debate and seek common ground and workable solutions. The president keeps showing that he is serious about reaching out to people who disagree with him and that his efforts at being bipartisan are not going to stop just because the Republicans in Congress keep rebuffing him.
Today, Obama gets to give another graduation address in a totally different setting. He will don both his commander-in-chief hat and his chief commencement speaker hat at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Unless Alan Keyes is free on bail, there are not likely to be protestors for that event.
Around Maryland, the approach to commencement speakers runs the gamut. Many universities have decided that the chase for high profile speakers is not worth it and that they would rather have members of the immediate university community including students and faculty.
Other universities try to find speakers that reflect positively on their status as a national institution. The University of Maryland, College Park, had CIA Director Leon Panetta. And in a bit of almost perfect political symmetry, this year's commencement address at the Johns Hopkins University was given by Speaker of the House (and Maryland native) Nancy Pelosi. As in recent days in Washington, the two were literally and figuratively speaking past each other.
Finally, in the category of picking a state elected official as the speaker, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, has Gov. Martin O'Malley. I guess Alan Keyes could show up there as well.
With all due respects to these and all the other distinguished commencement speakers, the remarks are not likely to be long remembered by anyone. But it will still be a great day.
Laslo Boyd is a partner at Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies. He also teaches courses at both Towson University and the University of Baltimore. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.