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2012's best and worst commencement speakers

Posted by Alex Pearlman  May 25, 2012 11:12 AM

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Screen Shot 2012-05-25 at 8.28.49 AM.pngBy Chelsea Feinstein

Commencement is a day about the graduates. But invariably each year, the buzz is about one thing: which famous figure each university gets to speak at its commencement. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a polyester gown and a silly hat, with the sun beating down on the back of your neck, and having to listen to someone 40 years older than you ramble on about the secret to success or their own personal journey to self-fulfillment or something else that is absolutely no good to you in a year when 50 percent of the people sitting around you won’t get jobs. But when that speaker hits the right note, if they can relate to the particular struggles of the class of 2012, they may just be able to impart some actual wisdom.

These are the best and the worst of this year’s Boston-area college commencement speakers.


Boston University – Eric Schmidt

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has certainly revolutionized the way we live our lives, and his speech at Boston University had its high points, but overall the effort fell flat. Telling a bunch of 22-year-olds to turn off their electronics for an hour a day and have a real face-to-face conversation came across as a bit condescending. Sure, maybe it’s good advice, but just because we spend a lot of time on Facebook doesn’t mean we are incapable of person-to-person interaction. And while the sentiment that we need our hearts, and not just technology, to make a difference in the world was a bit inspiring, most of what Schmidt said was pretty forgettable and cliched. Not to mention, the constant plugs for Google didn’t help. We already use Google. You don’t have to advertise to us on a day that isn’t supposed to be about you.

Watch this video on YouTube

Northeastern University – Colin Powell

Powell was arguably the most famous of the Boston area commencement speakers this year, but his speech at Northeastern on May 4 failed to inspire. He began the speech by talking about himself, and always came back to that same subject throughout his talk. The speech got better as it went on, with Powell encouraging students to pursue a life of public service and to make up their own minds about politics and world issues, saying, “You make your own mind up. Make your own decision.” If only Powell had skipped the autobiography, or even shown that he’s taken his own advice, his speech might not have been a dud.

Suffolk University – Barney Frank

Rep. Frank’s speech at Suffolk had lots of promise. He kept it short, acknowledging what so many other speakers forgot – that “no one came to hear [him],” and he refrained from giving advice, claiming that advice is “the most overvalued thing in the morning.” His celebrated blunt wit came through in his speech, but it failed to live up to the promise in his opening paragraphs. Frank turned mostly to a discussion of politics, and while he had valid points, a commencement ceremony shouldn’t be the place to push a political agenda.


Tufts University – Eric Greitens

Greitens, a humanitarian and former Navy Seal, is exactly the kind of person you would want inspiring the next generation – a man who has committed his life to serving others. He encouraged the class of 2012 to do the same at Tufts on May 20, and received a standing ovation for his words. Greitens was a great choice because any young adult could follow in his footsteps, if they go into the world with the intent of improving it.

Emerson College – David Gregory

Meet the Press host David Gregory provided Emerson’s graduates in his speech on May 14 with several solid pieces of advice. While none of them were exactly groundbreaking, he delivered them with sincerity, warmth and humor. Among the advice he dispensed: learn resilience and humility, be part of a team and do great work that you love. Simple and to the point, Gregory brought the focus where it should be placed – on giving advice to the next generation of college graduates.


Harvard University – Andy Samberg

"I'm as honored to be here, as I am unqualified." Two minutes in, after an entrance to Adele's "Rumor has it," the Saturday Night Live comedian had the audience at Harvard's Class Day rolling in the aisles. Samberg is the perfect choice for a speaker, he's the quintessential Gen Y, he speaks to our issues, and is able to poke fun at our culture and the handful of "useless" majors we spent four years getting. "Just play World of Warcraft," he said to all those Literature, Art, East Asian studies and Folklore and Mythology majors. "Unless you can turn them into an iPhone app!" Now, that's the self-deprecating, cynical, but optimistic tone the graduates need to hear.

About Chelsea -- I am a junior at BU majoring in journalism and international relations, a proud Maryland native, and a lover of folk music and cat memes. I like words and the world.

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