Tuesday, April 7, 2015

2015 Commencement Speaker Battles, Round 2

A new spring ritual -- challenging college commencement speakers -- has bubbled up again, this time at the University of Houston.  Nobody is claiming that the selected speaker has wrong-headed views, but questions are being raised about the fee he will be paid for ushering graduates out into the broader world with encouraging bromides and words of wisdom.

The UH commencement speaker will be Matthew McConaughey, a fine actor who by the way graduated from a different school in the state, the University of Texas.  McConaughey will be paid $135,000 (plus transportation and agent's fee) to appear.

Other commencement speakers have been paid in previous years, but the amount in this case is rather high.  To be fair, McConaughey plans to donate his speaking fee to charity.

UH is a public school and very involved in the Houston economy, but many of its students struggle.  More than 60 percent receive need-based financial aid (an average of $7,500 annually toward $10,500 tuition).  Only 48 percent of students graduate within six years. Extra money, like that awarded to McConaughey, could be put to better use in counseling or tutoring programs.

For the last several years, colleges have been having hard times lining up acceptable commencement speakers.  I have no direct experience in this field, but I did take some marketing classes back in the day.  I would like to share some off-the-cuff advice to UH in selecting next year's commencement speaker. 

2016:  A Better Approach for UH
Why not choose a prominent UH graduate?  Every college has alumni who have done well in the world.  These people make good speaking choices because they can share campus memories with new graduates and because most of them have accumulated enough money not to need or want large honorariums.

Here are a few folks UH could consider.

-- Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler (two of the NBA's 50 best players ever) played their college ball at UH and also played for the Houston Rockets.  Both have maintained homes in the area, and no doubt are popular in the region.  How about asking one of them to speak and awarding him an honorary degree?  

-- Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller also attended UH and might be willing to appear.  
     (He's a little controversial.  Many years ago, he made an insensitive and stupid joke about then-neophyte PGA member Tiger Woods.  Zoeller apologized profusely, Woods accepted the apology and the two apparently were on fine terms ever afterward, but still.  He may not worth the gamble.)

-- Country musician Larry Gatlin attended UH on a football scholarship and seems like a serious and thoughtful man.  
     On the plus side, one of his hit songs, "Houston" (Means I'm One Day Closer to You) would make a fine, snappy musical intro as he stepped up to the podium.  
     On the minus side, Gatlin also has written and performed gospel music and, since 2010, has been an occasional commenter on Fox News.  Either of these could render him unacceptable in the current climate.

-- Here's my favorite idea:  A political two-fer.  Liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren and conservative former House Majority Leader Tom Delay both graduated from UH.  Why not bring them together for a joint commencement performance?  
     They could share reminiscences of their college experience and where it led them and then engage in a little light-hearted back-and-forth about their differing political views.  No scorn, no antagonism, just a couple politicos sharing simple respect for each other and sincere good wishes for graduates of their alma mater. 
     It would attract news coverage.  It would go viral on Youtube.  And it might just spark a trend toward more respectful political discussions generally.

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