Last weekend I had the privilege and responsibility of participating in the 2013 graduation ceremonies at Curry College. It was a beautiful day and by all accounts, an extremely successful ceremony. The featured speaker was Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney who distributed the 9-11 fund and is currently overseeing the One Boston fund. More than 800 students graduated and the formal part of the ceremony took just under two and a half hours.
As Chief Academic Officer, I am a member of the platform party – I sat on the stage – and I actively participated, reading the names of some of our graduates. The duties are far from onerous and can be very enjoyable. I also had time to watch and mull over the spectacle that is a college graduation. I started to think about why we hold graduation ceremonies. I have been to dozens and participated in organizing more than a few. Graduations are rituals, rites of passage that are hard-wired into our collective understanding of what institutions of higher education do. They take enormous effort and are almost always an additional duty for faculty and staff.
The most obvious reason for graduation ceremonies is that we are expected to do so – and higher education draws sustenance and strength from tradition. That cannot be minimized, even though the function of a graduation – to celebrate publicly student accomplishment – makes great sense. Higher education is in the business of credentialing student learning. Commencement ceremonies are very much about that responsibility. They make us feel good, too.
But what about the honorary degrees? The speeches and the addresses? It would be easy to say that we all love to hear a good speech, but that simply isn’t the case. If it were, we would all be dashing off to the mall to hear speeches. We don’t and we don’t watch them on television or Youtube, either. Higher education includes formal addresses at graduations to memorialize the ceremony, making it unique, and to link the institution with an important external presence. The very presence of formal speeches signals that the event is worthy of our attention.
In fact, the presence of an external speaker in and of itself has meaning. Graduation ceremonies offer institutions of higher education an opportunity to be noticed by the public in a positive way. This is extraordinarily valuable. Think about it – the only other consistent avenue for higher education to connect with the public is through sports. Commencement ceremonies can render a college or university visible and important. This value does not rest of the speaker’s long-term connection with the institution or the quality of their address, either. In fact, most commencement speeches are quickly forgotten. However, the fact that many of us sat under a tent with Kenneth Feinberg and listened to him talk will stay with us forever.
Higher education most definitely could use a few more ways of communicating and share with the public at large.