National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

Commencement time’s big name business


There was a buzz around Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles recently that there might be an honorary doctorate for actor Mel Gibson come commencement time.

He’d be a delightfully controversial selection for a Catholic university for several reasons, not least that he’s currently building a 600-seat Tridentine church in Malibu, Calif. (His latest, self-funded, $25 million movie, “Passion” -- the story of Christ’s Passion with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin, no subtitles -- promises to generate interest among the clinically curious plus develop a cult following of some sort.)

It’s awfully hard, if one is in the commencement speaker invitation business, to select a safe notable. Indeed, it’s hard to guarantee that this year’s hero won’t become next year’s villain.

There was that 1972 Fordham University appearance by U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. He seemed sound at the time. It was only later the unrepentant Waldheim refused to apologize for his past as a Nazi officer. (Scandal isn’t a complete barrier: President Bill Clinton had 100 invites in 1996, accepted three; and in 1999, undoubtedly from a smaller pool, also accepted three.)

Even commencement speakers of no note or notoriety can create uproar.

The problem facing Catholic universities -- and others -- is that while there are murmurings of administrations wanting to move away from the high profile, the students apparently want big names.

Georgetown University students were “severely disappointed” by the poor quality of the university’s 2002 speakers. The campus newspaper, The Hoya, encouraged students themselves to use family connections to upgrade the selection, and urged the university to focus on a single graduation ceremony with a truly big name rather than the current myriad ceremonies at the various schools.

Georgetown’s graduation speakers’ list last year included a college president (at the College of Arts and Sciences); the head of a genomic research institute (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences); the president-CEO of a world-girdling investment operation filled with ex-government officials (School of Business); a leading congresswoman (School of Foreign Service); and two mayors -- New York’s Rudolph Giuliani and Washington, D.C.’s Anthony Williams (School of Law).

In 1998, when some graduating Notre Dame students complained that South Bend Mayor Joseph Kernan (now Indiana lieutenant-governor) wasn’t prestigious enough, the university’s South Bend neighbors blasted, in letters to the editor, the “snot-nosed intellectuals” who didn’t think a dedicated public servant and war hero sufficiently worthy.

It’s not always the neighbors. Some universities have to duck when powerful alumni weigh-in to castigate the selection, though in all probability the more conservative the speaker the less likely the alumni will be heard from.

The Catholic University of America didn’t duck controversy in 2002 when it invited Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft. In his address, civil liberties trasher Ashcroft even mentioned the recently deceased labor priest and advocate for the poor, Msgr. George Higgins, by name. (I haven’t yet been to George’s grave to see if he spun in it.)

Catholic universities basically can’t win.

In 2000 one Catholic right-wing organization contended that 14 of the nation’s 235 Catholic institutions of higher education the previous year had inappropriate commencement speakers. Most of those named, from the Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman (Duquesne University) to U.S. Ambassador to Italy Thomas Foglietta (Cabrini College, Radnor, Pa.) were less than purely pro-life on abortion.

Notre Dame’s Dennis Brown, associate director of news and information, told NCR a speaker’s abortion stance “becomes very important on a Catholic campus. Pro-choice speakers tend to create controversy.”

It’s said some universities would like to scrap the honorary degree and big names business altogether in favor of lower key people relevant to the universities’ mission. Plus perhaps the local wealthy (which wouldn’t rule out Mel Gibson, who is seriously rich).

He’s also highly moral. He was the Scots warrior in “Braveheart” who wore underpants. See the scene of him leaping down from the castle -- Hessian long johns under his kilt.

It’s just about time now that universities will be startling -- or not -- the world with their selections. Of the Mel Gibson potential selection, the Loyola Marymount spokesman said, “I’ve not heard about it.”

Maybe the whole idea is a bit dotty. Practically no graduate of an age to require health membership can remember who the commencement speaker was anyway.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

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