Commencement Addresses Delivered by Incumbent U.S. Presidents, 1914-2010: A Historical Analysis

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 1/10 |

Each year, thousands of colleges and universities across the United States hold commencement. This is a time when campus is in full bloom—manicured lawns, farewell hugs from classmates, and final exams. As the graduates march in unison to their seats, their colorful school robes flow gently amid the sea of flashing camera bulbs. Like a Hollywood premiere, the graduates are the stars whose years of hard work can finally be recognized by invited guests. Since a commencement is a significant investment in time and money, the ceremony is planned down to the last minute. In a sense, a commencement is similar to a play because it has several acts—student recognition, hooding of doctoral students and the distribution of diplomas (Magolda, 2003).

Since commencement is a significant milestone, the event is designed to capture many powerful emotions that contribute to lasting memories. One way a school can make commencement memorable is by selecting a speaker who will deliver meaningful epideictic oratory. Every year, universities invite some of the most well-known and accomplished public figures to speak on to their campuses. Nearly every profession is represented, including business executives, religious leaders and film celebrities. However, a small number of schools are selected to have the President of the United States speak at their commencement exercises. It is a prestigious honor for a school to host the President to speak on an unforgettable day for students and their families. The President alone commands significant ethos to speak at a school because, as a key figure that leads the U.S., they are well-aware of the current events that captures generational attention.

Every year, just before the Spring commencement season begins, the White House announces the President’s school selections. Some well-known schools—such as Harvard University and Dartmouth College—are not surprising. However, the choices of lesser-known universities—such as Liberty University and Calvin College —have surprised White House watchers. Although Presidents have traditionally remained tight-lipped regarding their choices, distinct patterns could shed light on why those schools stand-out.

In May 1982, Ronald Reagan delivered a commencement address to his alma mater, Eureka College. He succinctly defined the importance of the commencement when he remarked:

“Graduation Day is called ‘Commencement,’ and properly so, because it is both a recognition of completion and a beginning. And I would like, seriously, to talk to you about this new phase—the society in which you're now going to take your place as full-time participants. You're no longer observers. You'll be called upon to make decisions and express your views on global events, because those events will affect your lives” (Reagan, 1982).

Given that the President works around the clock to help run the country, taking time off from a busy schedule to speak rouses the public to attention. Behind-the-scenes, however, a President’s address at a particular university is by no means an accident because there are several key motives hidden from the eyes of the public. Their commencement speeches have incorporated thematic elements of historic significance in a student’s life, as well as optimism for their future based on past educational accomplishments. When U.S. Presidents speak at college commencements, they often employed unifying rhetoric to heal and maintain social divisions, promote the school’s image and build support for their policy agendas.

The President has commanded significant attention from people all over the globe when they take the podium. William K. Muir (1995), Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California-Berkeley, notes the President’s far reaching influence when he writes:

The President occupies a uniquely prominent point in our bustling, cacophonous society. He can be heard by virtually every segment of our people. As president, he is empowered to speak. And his power to speak, unlike all the other powers he exercises, is an independent one. For the Constitution does not oblige him to share his podium with any other branch of government. His messages to the people do not have to be authorized by Congress, or upheld by the Supreme Court, or executed by the bureaucracy. He is free to use the rhetorical prominence of the presidency to clarify the ideas that animate his people and give purpose to their actions (Muir, 15).

It may seem unusual that, given the amount of planning invested into a formalized affair like commencement, that the President can speak candidly about issues that they feel are important. Unlike other formalized speaking venues, such as Congress or the White House, the President can take advantage of a less-formal location. Since a college commencement evokes themes of taking advantage of several moments in time—the past, present and future—young, traditionally-aged college students can be greatly influenced. Likewise, as time has progressed, the student audience has increased. In 1900, less than two percent of adults completed an undergraduate college degree. A century later, however, a quarter of all adults completed at least a bachelor’s degree (Rutherford, 586). Part of this accelerated rise in adult education—as well as regular Presidential commencement addresses—derives from the dramatic increase in college enrollment after World War II.

The United States has a long tradition celebrating the college commencement. The tradition goes back to 1642 at Harvard College—before the thirteen colonies of British North America declared independence (Martin, 512). However, the first college commencement was not delivered by a sitting U.S. President until Woodrow Wilson came to the U.S Naval Academy in 1914. However, due to interruptions caused by World War I and World War II, Presidential commencement addresses were not delivered on a regular basis until 1948. Since then, Presidents have delivered a total of 147 commencement addresses on dozens of college campuses nationwide. The vast majority of presidential commencement addresses will happen during the Spring commencement season, usually in May or June. However, this is not always the case, as a few presidents have given commencement addresses at the conclusion of the summer and fall semesters. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover each delivered only one college commencement speech, while Bill Clinton gave the most with 25. While there are several colleges that were only visited once, the most appearances have been at a string of national military academies—the U.S. Military, Coast Guard, Naval and Air Force Academies. The frequency of these venues is hardly surprising, since the U.S. President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

It is important to note that a President’s college commencement address is different than a President addressing a college. The distinction between the two is not always clear, as there are several similarities between them. Both are given public attention, especially with the presence of college administrators in full college regalia. While college addresses will include university administrators, they may not always include students. A college commencement address is different in that the speech is aimed specifically at students. Therefore administrators and students will always be present at a school’s commencement address. Unlike the open-ended themes of a college address, a college commencement address will always address a tenet concerning the ending academic year. Sample topics could include emotions when saying goodbye to classmates, acknowledging the end of one chapter in a student’s life or including a discussion on lessons learned for the future.

Both will speak on an important event that incorporates the school. For instance, President Calvin Coolidge’s itinerary from 1926 included several events commemorating the 150th anniversary of America’s independence. Tour stops included The College of William & Mary near the Battle of Yorktown, a speech near the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on July 5 and a speech commemorating the Battles of Trenton and Princeton near Princeton University on December 29.

These events, along with several others in 1926, never occurred during commencement season. Likewise, none of the speeches specifically addressed a common theme of commencement: living in the present moment, reflecting on past knowledge and using this wisdom to positively affect the future. These subtle details from Coolidge’s itinerary point to a larger difference between commencements and addresses in that a general college address can take place at any time.

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