John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Forget the Official Commencement: Your “Farewell Address” Is the One That Will Matter

I love commencement season. For 13 years I had a job as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University of South Carolina’s five “Regional Campuses” that required my presence at five different graduation ceremonies. I became a connoisseur of the genre. Seriously, I came to look forward to those commencement addresses and I heard some doozies, truly memorable.

I have also given a number of them myself. And I am convinced this is an exercise wasted on the young, but not the parents. In one speech I gave, about 15 years ago I threw out the challenge that if anyone in the audience could remember my name after more than 10 years and contact me, I would give them a substantial amount of money. I haven’t heard from a soul. And I crafted some pretty good speeches if I don’t say so myself.

What set me to thinking about this was that I, like most Americans, follow the schedule of our President, no matter whom or where he is, with considerable influence. Last weekend, for example, he was in Asheville, North Carolina, about 35 miles from where I live in Brevard. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I flew into the Asheville airport last Saturday evening and there right by our gate on the tarmac was Air Force One “The United States of America.” What a thrill. And this weekend, President Obama went to the University of Michigan to deliver the commencement address (and then on to the annual Washington correspondents’ dinner and then to Louisiana to observe the oil spill disaster. But it is his trip to Ann Arbor that has set me off on this tear about commencements.

Each commencement season I am so thankful to The New York Times for printing the texts or at least excerpts from so many commencement addresses. I urge my readers to be on the alert for these.

OK, finally, to my point: I urge you to give the real commencement speech that matters to your students. They are going to forget the real one, if they even go. Participation in such ceremonies is going to the way of so many other traditions, south. Besides, the students won’t know the speaker anyway. But they do know you. And they care what you think. And they have come to trust you. You are the one with real influence. I urge you to convert your last class from a final exam (do that some other time—it is important too, of course), but, instead, YOU be the real commencement speaker. You will never have another chance with these particular students and neither will they.

-John Gardner

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