Final quiz: how to satisfy with graduation speakers

Rice University seniors, miffed by this year's choice, join students expecting famous faces along with diplomas.

The wish list included six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart.

But when the graduating seniors at Rice University in Houston learned that their commencement speaker was going to be one of their own professors - popular and award-winning though she may be - disappointment spread quickly through the oak-lined campus.

Whispers in the student center turned to rants in the student newspaper as some seniors wondered why their class got shafted when other graduating classes had heard from former presidents Bush, Carter, and Reagan, author Kurt Vonnegut, and comedian Bill Cosby.

Psychology professor Michelle "Mikki" Hebl will be the university's first faculty member to deliver the commencement speech, and the controversy over her selection shows just how high the expectations for commencement speakers have become.

"It's ridiculous that a serious academic institution like Rice can't do any better," says Angela Aaker, who graduates Saturday along with more than a thousand other students. "If I had wanted to hear her speak, I could have gone to her class."

Even high-school seniors at Houston's Second Baptist School did better, she says, adjusting her cap for a yearbook photo. They will be hearing from Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane.

The challenge for universities is to find a balance between someone with enough weight to impress alumni and parents and enough personality to entertain graduates. But that can be costly. Some speakers charge six figures for a 15-minute speech. This year, Rice opted out.

"It's a complex issue," says Mark Scheid, assistant to Rice President David Leebron. "It's difficult to find someone who is going to be able to say something significant to a graduating class but who only has 11 minutes of significant statements to make - and who is not going to break your budget."

Many schools have advisory panels of students and faculty that send a list of suggested speakers to the president. In September, the Rice panel sent 20 names that included Dr. Hebl because she spoke to incoming freshmen four years ago.

Upsetting to some students here is that their new president didn't even contact anyone else on the list, fueling speculation that the university is more concerned with budgetary goals than with students' votes.

Mr. Scheid denies that, but adds, "With a typical commencement speaker's fee of between $25,000 and $35,000, you could hire an assistant professor for a year. And what education takes place in a speech like this? It is more of a showpiece."

He compares the commencement-speaker syndrome to the vicarious-athlete syndrome: If your team beats another, you feel superior to fans of the other team.

Elsewhere, speakers include Vice President Dick Cheney at Auburn University Friday, Sen. Hillary Clinton at Agnes Scott College Saturday, and the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, at Boston University on May 22. Astronaut Neil Armstrong will address University of Southern California grads Friday, actor John Lithgow will speak at Harvard on June 9, and Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs will talk to Stanford University grads on June 12.

"I don't know what's happened with all this one-upmanship," says Bob O'Rourke, chairman of the commencement-speaker committee at the California Institute of Technology. And it's not just the schools that are playing hard, he says. Some speakers won't even consider accepting an offer without an honorary degree or a large fee. Both of those go against Caltech's selection rules. Invitees are told up front that they will receive no remuneration or reward.

Some schools target famous alumni in hopes of having them waive or reduce their fees. Other vie for in-office politicians who cannot accept fees, says Theo Moll of Keppler Speakers. She says the most-requested commencement speakers are Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Cosby. "But no matter who you chose, it's nearly impossible to get someone everyone is happy with." Mr. Cosby spoke at Rice's graduation three years ago and had the audience rolling in the aisles, students here recall.

"We ... wanted someone like that. I think we've all had enough of the 'Go forth and conquer' speeches," says senior John Britt, who wrote a guest column for the Rice Thresher condemning the president's choice. "It's not that we don't like Dr. Hebl. It's just that Rice, as an institution, should not think so lowly of itself."

Students at New York University know how Rice grads feel. Requested speakers at this year's commencement included Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jon Stewart. Instead, NYU selected Princeton President Shirley Tilghman for its ceremonies - leaving many disappointed.

"For students about to embark on a whole new journey, including many about to leave behind the world of academia, having another university representative speak will be about as inspiring as a Creed Christmas album," barked an editorial in the student newspaper.

Back at Rice, graduates have been filing into the student center all week to pick up their caps and gowns and get photos taken for the yearbook. For some, frustration has turned into resignation as they reflect on their four years here. For others, none of that matters as they rush into the future.

"At the beginning, a lot of people found it insulting," says Virginia Dzul-Church graduating with an anthropology degree. "It would have been cool to have someone more high profile, like Robin Williams, but it's kinda neat to have Professor Hebl. It'll be like going full circle. In the end, it's the message that matters to me."

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