Commencement speakers: The good, the ‘meh’ and the ugly


Jimmy Page, guitarist with British rock band Led Zeppelin, spoke at Berklee College of Music.

By Alex Pearlman  

Another commencement season, another chance to overanalyze anew the annual list of graduation speakers at local universities. How easy it proves each spring to furrow one’s brow as the nation’s leaders hop from podium to podium in an attempt to influence large groups of students who want nothing more than to switch over their tassels and do some celebratory shots.

Yet some schools every year show a surprising depth of understanding of what their grads want — and need — to hear as they walk into the great unknown of adulthood armed with nothing more than a diploma and mountain of student debt. Others are, well, less impressive.


Below is my take on this graduation season’s notable speakers. With so many colleges in Greater Boston, excuse us for having to narrow the list down a bit. And this annual ritual is a team sport, so don’t hesitate to give us your take, too. Leave a comment here or tweet at @GlobeOpinion.

The Good:

Berklee College of Music: Jimmy Page

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One of the most prolific musicians of all time, and arguably the Zeus of rock’s Olympians, the Led Zeppelin guitarist received an honorary degree at Berklee’s commencement ceremony on May 9. It’s unclear how they’ll top this choice next year, or if that’s possible.

UMass Lowell: Bill Nye the Science Guy


Bill Nye during a debate on evolution with Creation Museum head Ken Ham.

For someone whose television career peaked in 1998, Nye has had quite the second wind lately. A favorite cult figure of the millennial generation, Nye re-endeared himself to a loyal fan base by debating a creationist earlier this year and calling notorious woman-bashing congressman Todd Akin a “f**king idiot” for blaming extreme weather on immorality. He’s a strong, and likely very funny, choice.

Lesley University: Lois Lowry

This may be a promotional stop for the award-winning author, but we can forgive her. Like Nye, Lowry is a familiar name from the early 1990s, and a bit of a cult celebrity, especially with liberal arts students who grew up reading her books. The movie version of “The Giver,” Lowry’s creepy and essential dystopian children’s book, is set to be released in August, and is highly anticipated by this year’s grads (and, well, anyone who has read the novel.)

MIT: Ellen Kullman

As CEO of DuPont, Kullman oversees a 200-year-old chemical empire that stands apart from the rest of the pack. Over the decades, DuPont has manufactured everything from Kevlar to spandex while simultaneously cutting its carbon emissions more than 60 percent over the past 15 years. Kullman keeps a lower profile than some of her headline-grabbing peers — can we please stop mentioning that female CEO at Facebook? All this leaning is exhausting — and seems to seek business cred over publicity. She’s a strong leader who has pulled her company successfully out of the recession, and is a good choice from the science/business community to empower MIT graduates.

The ‘Meh’:

Boston University: Gov. Deval Patrick


When Patrick was announced as the 2014 speaker at the school’s Senior Breakfast, a collective groan echoed from Commonwealth Ave. Patrick is a lazy choice for a school that wants to distinguish itself as a global leader, and that has such an international student body. Sure, it’s his last chance to speak at a commencement ceremony as the sitting governor, but it’s shrug-worthy. The class of 2014 seems to share my sentiments — just read these tweets.

Emerson College: Jay Leno

AP Photo

Many believe Leno tainted his long career by behaving badly during a spat with Conan O’Brien over “Tonight Show” hosting duties.

One of the least-popular comedians in America, the Emerson alum (class of 1973) has rapidly lost the public’s love since the 2010 Conan O’Brien/“Tonight Show”/”Late Night” debacle. No one has forgotten what a jerk Leno was to our beloved Coco, even despite his moving into retirement three months ago and ceding the show to Jimmy Fallon. Emerson’s student paper, the Berkeley Beacon, quotes a student who dislikes Leno as a choice of speaker for “backstabbing his coworkers.” Maybe that’s show business, but it certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Boston College: Secretary of State John Kerry

He’s a perfectly respectable choice who isn’t too flashy or too boring, but Kerry’s recent bad luck with microphones has me concerned for the Secretary’s ability to carry out the speech. There’s only one thing scarier than facing down Israelis and Palestinians at the peace table: bros from Boston College.

Harvard University: Michael Bloomberg

The lack of creativity in this appointment reeks of Old White Man-ism. Fresh off his tenure as the stop-and-frisk mayor of New York City, the billionaire surprised no one by being his alma mater’s choice for the May 29 ceremony.

The Ugly:

Suffolk University Law School: ADL National Director Abraham Foxman

Bill Greene/The Boston Globe

Abe Foxman delivers the keynote address during the ADL national meeting in 2010.

Refusing to recognize the Armenian genocide while being a Holocaust survivor is just bad etiquette, not to mention Foxman’s controversial comments about the World Trade Center “mosque.” The Anti-Defamation League is also an organization that continues to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, a position that prohibits constructive debate about a two-state solution by shielding the Israeli government from criticism of their actions in an occupied Palestine. The Suffolk administration’s choice is a divisive one for the campus, which has both strong Armenian and Muslim populations, and has made commencement something to fight over instead of something to celebrate in unity. As a Suffolk alumna, I think this is a terrible choice.

Alex Pearlman can be reached at
You can follow her on Twitter@Lexikon1.