Two weeks ago, prominent journalist Fareed Zakaria told Harvard University’s graduating class, “You don’t need an ethics course to know what you shouldn’t do.’’
It was good advice, as members of Duke University’s class of 2012 could attest. At Duke’s commencement 11 days before, Zakaria had uttered precisely the same words.
Zakaria’s Harvard and Duke commencement speeches were essentially identical, built around the same anecdotes and points and often the same language.
The addresses have set some at Harvard and Duke atwitter.
“I spoke to him while he was here,” said one Duke employee, “and I got the strong impression from him that his Harvard speech would be a different presentation. Oh, well, at least Duke got it first.”
Not all of it, actually. Zakaria hit many of the same notes, including the line about ethics, in an address to the Johns Hopkins University class of 2011. He also used some of them for the Brown University class of 2009 and the Yale University class of 2007.
Zakaria said the overlap was natural, especially in the Harvard and Duke speeches.
“Those are students from two very similar institutions graduating within two weeks of each other,” he said. “I don’t see how I could have come up with two completely different speeches without giving one group a second-rate talk. I’d rather come up with the same important message I think they need to hear.”
He added that many other commencement speakers recycle their own material.
That is true. Governor Deval Patrick spoke at six commencements in 2009; they overlapped so much that some students listened with homemade Bingo cards in hand.
For a commencement address at Syracuse University this year, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin repeated lines from a speech he had given there 15 years ago and zingers from some of his television shows.
But not all high-profile commencement speakers are so predictable. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, for example, gave back-to-back, completely different speeches at Franklin & Marshall College and the University of North Carolina in May.
And Temple Grandin, the autism advocate and livestock expert, who spoke at four commencements this year, said she made a point of never giving even roughly the same speech twice.
“I find out about each campus, the place, and the people, and I try to deviate a lot,” she said in an interview.
Consultants who handle graduation speakers said it was odd for someone, particularly a writer, to deliver the same keynote at two top-tier institutions within two weeks.
“Usually, they’re very different speeches,” said Randell Kennedy, who has handled more than 100 commencement talks as president of the consultancy Academy Communications. “One reason for that is Google, because you can just plug in the text from one school and — holy cow! — find it at the other.”
Zakaria said that prior to this year he had made a point of delivering no more than one commencement address per season.
But he accepted Duke’s offer last fall and two weeks later found himself on the phone with Harvard president Drew Faust.
“I just couldn’t say no,” he said. When he warned Faust’s office he was already speaking at Duke, he said, “her office came back and said, ‘Don’t be silly, we very much still want you.’ ”
Zakaria said he “tried to make clear the themes would be similar” to Duke officials, and sent Harvard a draft of his speech beforehand.
His May 24 Harvard speech started with an amusing anecdote. “To the graduates in particular,” he said, “I have to tell you, you’re way ahead of me already. I never made it to my commencement. . . . I celebrated a bit the night before the ceremony.”
He opened with the same anecdote, and much of the same language, at Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Yale.
Further identical language and similarities studded the Harvard, Duke, and Johns Hopkins speeches, including an anecdote concerning Art Buchwald and a stirring paragraph about enduring human talents, enlivened with a joke about modernist metal sculpture. A long bit from the Woody Allen movie “Radio Days” showed up in the speeches from Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Brown.
The Harvard and Duke speeches featured the same story about the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande and the same extended riff on the power of cellphones, with an admonishment to students to stop looking at theirs (“Don’t think I can’t see you”).
The substance of the speeches was the same, as well. Zakaria spoke of an age of progress, noting that dramatically fewer people die of war now than they did in the Cold War era. He praised America as “the only country in the industrialized world that is demographically vibrant.” He discussed the H1N1 outbreak in Mexico at length in almost identical words.
He talked about the empowerment of women, citing the same study of gender differences in pork-barrel spending. “If you are wondering whether women are, in fact, smarter than men,” he said in both speeches, “the evidence now is overwhelming: yes.”
Zakaria was not paid for the Harvard and Duke speeches, though he received honorary degrees.
Two people who had spoken with Harvard administrators said there was some disappointment in the ranks over the similarity of the speeches. But Harvard and Duke officials both said the talks were well received.
Zakaria said that if he is asked to speak at a commencement next year, “I won’t have changed my mind. . . . I think I did the right thing.”Mary Carmichael can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.