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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

The stage, the speaker and the speech: What goes into a commencement address?

The most important speech of the academic year, unpacked.

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How is the commencement speaker chosen, and what makes a good speech?

The graduation ceremony is a culmination of four years of living and learning. On a beautiful May morning, thousands of students, donning voluminous robes and eager to see their caps fly into the sky, pack onto Tufts’ Academic Quad. As they take their seats, perched in front of the imposing stage, they know that only a few hours separate them from the rest of their adult lives.

But what occurs in those few hours should not be overlooked. While the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony might be tedious for those in the crowd anxious for the celebrations to begin, it is those formalities, chiefly the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients, that determine how an already memorable day is remembered.

Tufts has awarded honorary degrees since 1858, when Thomas Whittemore, Universalist minister and vice president of the Tufts Board of Trustees, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

But Tufts’ first official commencement speaker was not recorded until 1916. That year, author, educator and politician Hamilton Holt shared words of wisdom and encouragement with the graduating class.

In an additional commencement tradition, Tufts has bestowed 1,139 honorary degrees. The types of degrees awarded have included Doctor of Humane Letters, Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Science among others.

For such an integral and longstanding part of the graduation ceremony, little is known about how the degree recipients and commencement speakers are selected, and even less is known about who the past honorees have been.

Each year, Tufts fields honorary degree nominations from all members of the university community — faculty, staff, students and alumni. Nominations are accepted for a week-long period in the fall semester, typically in October. Nominations are then reviewed by the Honorary Degree Committee, a branch of the Board of Trustees. The full board then makes the final decision on who the degree recipients will be.

The four-person committee is currently chaired by Lisbeth Tarlow. Tarlow is joined by fellow Keshia Pollack Porter and Vivek Shah, as well as University President Sunil Kumar, who maintains his position ex officio.

In recent years, speakers have come from all walks of life. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and “black-ish” (2014–22) creator Kenya Barris have all taken the stage on the Academic Quad. Sometimes speakers are Tufts alumni themselves, such as actor Hank Azaria and journalist Meredith Vieira.

According to Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of media relations, potential commencement speakers have to meet a high bar.

“The university considers nominees for Commencement speaker and other honorary degree recipients who, at the time of their nomination, have a record of distinguished and sustained accomplishment in the varied academic, scholarly, and professional fields represented at Tufts, including business and industry, the visual, literary, musical, and performing arts, or public life,” Collins wrote in a statement.

The best place to find out about what goes into preparing and giving a commencement address is someone who has done it before. Sol Gittleman, Alice and Nathan Gantcher University professor emeritus, was selected by former University President Lawrence Bacow to give the address in 2010, making him the first Tufts faculty member to receive the honor. For Gittleman, the honor was never about prestige, and he believes speakers should be connected to Tufts.

“I always said give it to a faculty member. Pick a different faculty member from a different school each year and stop this race for prestige for commencement speakers,” Gittleman said. “It’s supposed to be an intellectual exercise, so find somebody who can say something that’s important.”

For Gittleman, the speech is not solely meant to be celebratory, but also meaningful and impactful, akin to his ethos as a professor.

“I knew it was important for them, for the people listening, it’s important. So, you don’t want to do it trivially,” said Gittleman, reflecting on his own speech.

Gittleman’s guidelines for a good speech are straightforward. “Short and to whatever the points are you want to make.”

Though his address was given in 2010, much of Gittleman’s advice still holds true. He communicated to that year’s class the importance of studying the past.

“All I’m trying to do is find the truth, if there is such a thing. … The only way you can understand the facts is to have one foot planted in the past and one in the present, because if you don’t understand the history of how we got to where we are, then you’re not going to know anything,” Gittleman said.

As for this year’s graduation class, Gittleman shared some reassuring wisdom.

“The secret is lifelong learning. This is why it’s called commencement. … It’s only the beginning of your education.”

But what makes the ideal commencement speech from a student perspective? For senior Aidan Sweeney, the speech should include a mixture of elements.

“A decent amount of humor is good [and making] it a little more personable [so] you can relate to their story,” Sweeney said. “And, it’s good to hear some sort of advice, because, when you think about commencement, you’re going out into the real world, and that can honestly be scary. So, we’re all looking for a bit of guidance.”

As for the background of the speaker, though, Sweeney is open to anyone, as long as they add something of value to an already special day.

“For me, I don’t really care so much if they’re from Tufts or not. I think it would be good if they were successful or they’ve had a lot of experiences that are worth sharing.

No matter the speaker, seniors will face strong emotions come May 19.

“I definitely have some mixed feelings about it,” Sweeney said. “It will be good to graduate and get a degree under my belt, but I’m also feeling like I’m going to be leaving some stuff behind. … So, it’ll be rather bittersweet.”

This year’s commencement speaker will be Professor Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in three presidential administrations as an expert on Russian-American relations. Hill, the current chancellor of Durham University, will receive an honorary degree alongside three Tufts alumni — composer Kathryn Bostic, former professor Kathleen O’Loughlin of the School of Dental Medicine and innovative cardiologist Jeremy Ruskin.

Tufts officials are excited to welcome Hill and her fellow degree recipients to campus.

“We’re honored to have Fiona Hill as this year’s Commencement speaker,” Collins wrote. “Her long and distinguished record of public service is in keeping with Tufts’ mission of civic engagement, and her personal story of the transformative power of higher education resonates with the Tufts community. … We’re delighted that she has agreed to join us and we look forward to welcoming her on May 19.”  

In the end, no matter who is selected or how they get there, the day is about the graduating seniors. It is their hard work over four years at Tufts that made graduation day possible. While the day may end one period in their lives, the best is yet to come. In the eternal words of Semisonic, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”