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Commencement Addresses—going, going

Most of us in business are well beyond our graduation day. We may not have noticed that commencement speeches seem to be on the way to becoming a thing of the past.

Some schools have eliminated them altogether this graduation season. And many would-be commencement speakers are becoming won’t-be speakers for fear of demonstrations, disruptions, and disorder.

Corporate leaders, especially, are opting out of what they see as the downside risk involved in standing up in front of students and their families and staking out a position on, well, just about anything.

The Professional Speechwriters Association says companies are keeping their leaders out of the spotlight for fear of backlash like they got after 2020, when many spoke out in favor of racial justice.

There was no reward for that, as the speechwriters point out in their newsletter. “One group said they didn’t go far enough, one group said they went too far, and now they’re definitely in a phase of, ‘We comment on things that absolutely have essential bearing on our company and our business.’”

The kids might be okay with that.

One less speech to sit through before they toss their caps in the air isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it? Certainly, there are some gifted speakers among the sort of bigwigs who get invited to give commencement addresses. There are also a lot of mediocre ones.

Listening to some guy from a C-suite read remarks that were carefully prepared, edited, and homogenized by an employee or consultant isn’t usually the highlight of graduation day. And an audience eager to go launch their lives may not be the most receptive, no matter how deft the speaker is.

I wonder how many of us remember anything our commencement speaker said, or even who that was, up there yakking as we sat in row after row of young people eager to get on with it.

I can tell you who spoke at my graduation.

It’s not because of anything he said on that hot spring day in Macomb, though. Whether speaking on a university campus or anywhere else, Secretaries of Agriculture don’t make headlines – or memories – that often.

But then there was Earl Butz.

He’d already come and gone from that Western Illinois graduation. Butz was on a flight to California after the 1976 Republican National Convention, talking with singers Pat Boone and Sonny Bono and the former White House Counsel John Dean. Boone, a conservative Republican, wondered why the party of Lincoln couldn’t attract more Black voters.

Butz answered his question with a remark so racist and so vulgar it’s still shocking.

Dean wrote about the episode in a piece for Rolling Stone, though he didn’t name Butz—he was identified only as a member of President Gerald Ford’s cabinet. New Times checked all cabinet members’ travel records and figured out which one of them had been on that plane with Dean and a couple of conservative entertainers.

And in any case, The Washington Post pointed out later anyone who knew anything about Washington’s cast of characters would have had no doubt which Cabinet officer played the starring role in Dean’s story.

The Agriculture Secretary resigned and returned to his Indiana home.

Only two newspapers in the whole country ran his remark unedited. Many paraphrased it. And 3,000 readers of the San Diego Evening Tribune took the paper up on its offer to mail them an exact quote of what Earl Butz had said.

Maybe you have a graduation speech story too?

Take a spin in the wayback machine and tell us about it in the comments.