At this time of year, many people in the academic world begin wondering who has been selected to give the spring commencement address at their institutions. If sports fans obsess over bowl bids and tournament brackets, professors express a similar anxiety over who will be selected for this great honor.
Will it be a distinguished alumnus who has gone on to great success in government or commerce? Someone from the faculty who will provide insightful commentary on the human dilemma? Or (may it never be!) some fading politician or celebrity, seeking to add the prestige of the university to his or her name? Whatever the choice, the decision is sure to be the subject of analysis—and possibly indignation—in hallways and break rooms across the campus.
Although I've participated in my share of armchair analysis, I think this annual hand-wringing is based on unrealistic expectations. Although the choice of the speaker may have some symbolic significance, it has become obvious to me that the commencement address will forever be the illegitimate offspring of that truly noble creature, the Great Academic Lecture. I don't mean the sort of thing professors do in their classrooms—as brilliant as that might be. I certainly enjoy a specialist on Wordsworth or Keynesian economics or "dark matter" explaining the mysteries of their discipline to a group of neophytes. However, the Great Academic Lecture must, by definition, call the university together as a whole to hear a great intellect expound on a topic of lasting importance.
The commencement address can never be such a lecture, for many reasons. The focus of commencement is, and should be, on the graduates. The speaker who understands the audience and the occasion will speak not to the great issues of the day but to the achievement of these men and women and the challenges that await them. Second, since the occasion frequently calls for the reading of scores of names, the one great demand of a commencement speaker is that the remarks be brief and to the point.
Of course, there are exceptions to the "Keep it short, keep it light" rule. One thinks of Steve Jobs speaking to Stanford graduates in 2005, talking about his adoptive parents and his battle with cancer. But as memorable as that speech was for its personal reflections, it is still a variant of the standard commencement speech: "Keep looking; don't settle." "Follow your heart."
In contrast to the commencement address, the Great Academic Lecture is designed to bring the university's attention to a matter of great significance. Often these lectures are named for a significant donor or a beloved faculty member. At my university, the annual J. Roderick Davis Lecture is named after a legendary dean who made a major impact on the quality of teaching and research in the College of Arts and Sciences. For the past 10 years, I have worked with a small group of faculty to select the topic and the speaker for this occasion. I list them in this order—first the topic and then the speaker—because our first decision is always what topic is important for us to discuss. Sometimes we select the pressing issues of the day: understanding the Islamic world, health care, immigration, and so on. We then select the person who is best able to provide thoughtful analysis on those issues.
Sometimes we choose an important anniversary to commemorate. In 2007, Walter Isaacson, chief executive and president of the Aspen Institute, journalist, and biographer, spoke to us on Albert Einstein, 100 years after Einstein began his work on a general theory of relativity. This was easily the best academic lecture I have ever heard, as Isaacson masterfully blended biographical detail with in-depth explanations of Einstein's discoveries. The pleasure was enhanced for me because this was the first event held in our just-completed, multimillion-dollar sports arena. For one magical evening, I felt I had a ringside seat at the triumph of reason.
Of course, not all events go so brilliantly. Last spring we invited Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, to inaugurate a lecture series on the campus. Even before his lecture, rumors were swirling about possible misconduct. Soon after his appearance at Samford, a report aired on 60 Minutes suggesting that Mortenson had fabricated many of the supposedly factual events in the book, and that funds donated to his Central Asia Institute were mismanaged; he canceled all further lectures while he dealt with health issues. Of course, those events cast a pall over what should have been a great moment for the university.
On another occasion, the lecturer left a series of slides on an endless loop for the entire time he was speaking. The visual monotony was excruciating. Still, such experiences are the exceptions. What stands out most in my memory are the many students who have told me, "I didn't think I would enjoy [insert lecture topic], but I've come away with a whole new way of thinking about the world." A truly great lecture can be a transformative experience for students.
In this technological age, many people have suggested that the Great Academic Lecture is a relic of a bygone era. Why should we gather in crowded lecture halls to hear what could be transmitted more efficiently and economically in online form? Indeed, the "sage on the stage" has become epigrammatic for a pedagogy that is no longer relevant to our students.
But I believe that the Great Academic Lecture will continue to fulfill an important role in the academy. In part, it may be due to a need to connect personally with the great intellectual leaders of our era. Beyond the star power of a famous speaker, the shared experience of sitting in a great lecture hall and hearing a provocative talk has a psychological effect that can't be matched by blog or tweet.
So, this spring, as I sit through another commencement address, I will dutifully applaud the speaker, whether or not the advice is to my liking. But I will have listened as one listens to an amateur playing a Mozart concerto, knowing that it is only a shadow of that sublime form: the Great Academic Lecture.