Feldman ’15: A new voice for campus

Opinions Columnist

Brown’s rich traditions make the school extremely unique. Traditions like walking through the Van Wickle Gates and graduating with a concentration rather than a major have long enriched Brown’s history. But while certain traditions are vital to the Brown experience, others seem to be outdated and only kept for the sake of tradition itself. One of these traditions is the commencement speaker policy.

For each Commencement, two Brown students are selected to address their fellow classmates and their accompanying family and friends. Brown educates these speakers to the extent that they can write and speak as well as any professional who could have spoken. In doing so, Brown uses the commencement platform to showcase the high level of education students have received. But how can even the best student speakers fully embody the spirit of Commencement when they are beginning their careers at the same time as those they are addressing? How can they help prepare their peers for an area that they are just as unprepared for?

Student commencement speakers can give fantastic overviews of the last four years of our college education — or, for transfers, two or three years — but these speeches can be somewhat provincial. While inside jokes will most likely be positively received by students, and while joy and laughter should obviously complement the day’s festivities, there are better ways to relate to the students without ostracizing family and friends, who should just as much be a part of the intended audience.

A commencement speech is not the quintessential point of a student’s education, without which a graduate will no longer be prepared for life after college and should therefore enroll in a graduate program just to get another chance at a quality commencement speech. In reality, Commencement is a long, arduous day, and there will be just as many captivated people as there are those who just wish to change out of their gowns and celebrate with their families. One of the benefits of surviving the day is getting both the entertainment of having a high-profile speaker and the wisdom of someone who has made great strides in a particular field.

Solving this problem would be relatively easy. Using an alum speaker offers both the Brown element and the experience. Alums would have the ability to relate to students by telling stories of how they lived in, say, Slater Hall back in their day, while they would also serve as examples of what a Brown degree can be used to accomplish. This dynamic would appease both the nostalgic graduates and their parents who want one more thing to brag about at work. Most importantly, if the chosen alum’s background is of interest, it will motivate people to take the most away from the speech.

It is not as if we don’t have extremely impressive alums to choose from. Just for the 250th anniversary, we brought in Jim Yong Kim ’82, president of the World Bank. Kim brought the exact real-world experience and intrigue that could captivate a commencement audience. Another potential speaker could be Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ’91.5.

But while Brown has had a number of extremely impressive alums, the speakers do not have to necessarily be limited by the degree they possess. Brown has the capability to bring in renowned speakers from all across the world. For many people, it’s one of the last chances they will have to see a speaker of such significance, so why limit that? The students should have the privilege of listening to a highly regarded speaker to culminate a highly regarded education, if that is in fact their preference.

A voting system should allow upcoming graduates to choose whom they would prefer to hear speak. And if that election ended with two Brown students speaking, then at least we had the democratic opportunity to choose whose voices are among the last we hear while at Brown. I could be the only student who holds this opinion, and if so, that’s fine. But for others who would also like the option of bringing in one more renowned speaker before we leave, we deserve that chance as well.

One of the arguments against hiring a speaker is that it is a waste of money. But regardless of the funding Brown does or does not have — I’d argue that we have plenty — this is not the type of occasion that Brown should attempt to be frugal on. It is one of our few events over the course of the year whose impact reaches both the local and the national community. By spending the funds to bring in a renowned speaker, we would also advertise to prospective students.

Commencement isn’t just for the students. It’s also a gift to the parents, friends and relatives who helped us reach that point. So as they sit waiting in the audience for our names to eventually be said, wouldn’t it be nice if we rewarded their patience? Personally, I know my parents will come to Commencement regardless just to have proof that I actually graduated — because a diploma somehow won’t be enough. But I’m pretty sure they might be a little happier if someone like President Obama were there reassuring them that they spent their tuition dollars properly. And if not the president, I’m sure my parents wouldn’t mind settling for the secretary of state — but that’s just as a last resort.


If a renowned speaker cannot be brought in for next year’s address, Andrew Feldman ’15 is more than willing to accommodate private audiences with the likes of Michael Jordan or either Clinton and can be reached at with information about how to make his dreams a reality.

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  1. TheRationale says:

    I cannot even begin to describe how esoteric this complaint is.

  2. Sam D-G '15 says:

    They bring in an outside speaker for Baccalaureate, so there’s really no need for another one at the graduation ceremony.

  3. vicious little whack-a-mole says:

    yeah the student speakers ive seen have been pretty weak

    mostly just posting to say that no graduation speech by anyone will ever compare to david foster wallace’s ‘this is water’

  4. I absolutely 100% disagree with you. I think having the student speakers is amazing and along with the procession, separates Brown commencement from the rest of the pack as having, without a doubt, the best commencement ceremonies in the country.

    You can’t genuinely believe that students learn things from commencement speakers do you? If you’re really dying for the high profile speaker’s wisdom, just go on youtube and watch every other college’s snoozefest of a speaker.

    I’d much rather hear “one of my own” up there. Honestly I find the speeches more likely to be inspiring since they’re coming out of a 22 year old’s mouth than a 52 year old’s.

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