College commencement is serious business these days, a chance for a school to showcase its clout by attracting a big name to inspire its graduates — and, if the name is big enough, stories in the daily newspaper and the evening news.
Over the years at the 11 institutions for higher learning in the Triad we’ve had vice presidents and first ladies, world-class athletes and national figures in media and politics, and also Stephen Colbert, who spoke at Wake Forest University in 2015.
But this year’s is perhaps the most impressive list of commencement speakers we’ve seen in the Triad this century.
And what fun is a list unless it’s ranked?
I weighed the relative fame and levels of accomplishment for the speakers, and how they tied into the overall missions of the universities, taking into consideration each school’s trend in commencement speakers over the years.
Some schools keep better records than others for this sort of thing. Some schools don’t play the game, opting for successful alumni or local figures rather than spend the big bucks on a famous name. The idea, though, has always been to send off the graduates with some words of wisdom and inspiration.
As for me, I remember that the journalist Cokie Roberts spoke at my college graduation. But I can’t for the life of me remember what she said.
1. High Point University: Wolf Blitzer
Shorthand: The guy from CNN
- Past speakers: Condoleezza Rice (former secretary of state, 2016), Tom Brokaw (broadcast journalist, 2015), Colin Powell (retired diplomat and general, 2014), Steve Wozniak (tech entrepreneur, 2013), Laura Bush (former first lady, 2012), Lance Armstrong (world-class cyclist, 2011)
- Bio: A high-profile television personality, Blitzer gained prominence covering the first Gulf War for CNN. He has also worked the Tel Aviv bureau for Reuters, the White House Press Corps, wrote a New York Times Book of the Year — 1986’s Territory of Lies, about an American charged with spying for Israel — and was one of the first Western reporters invited to view KGB headquarters in Moscow. He currently hosts “The Situation Room” on CNN.
- Ever heard of him? Yes
- Appropriateness: HPU has sometimes been criticized for valuing style over substance, which combined with university President Nido Qubein’s penchant for creating “wow moments” makes this TV talking head a near-perfect pairing.
- What he talked about: Blitzer spoke on May 6, emphasizing the role perseverance played in his life and career, and the importance of hard work and “showing up.”
2. NC A&T University: Laila Ali
Shorthand: Muhammad Ali’s daughter
- Past speakers: First Lady Michelle Obama (2012), US Rep. John Lewis (2015), Donna Brazile (author and political analyst, 2014)
- Bio: Laila Ali won her first world boxing title in 2002 and amass a perfect 24-0 career — with 21 wins by knockout. She finished in 2007 with a TKO of South African fighter Gwendolyn O’Neil, and now is the founder of a “lifestyle brand” that incorporates her roles in fitness and health, media, business and professional sports. She has appeared on “Dancing with the Stars,” “Chopped” and other shows and movies, and is a past president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
- Ever heard of her? Probably
- Appropriateness: Ali has created a brand around her interests, accomplishments and personality. But she exhibits little of the political activism for which A&T — and her father — are well known.
- What she’ll talk about: On Saturday, Ali will certainly talk about her father and her own career in the ring and out of it. And it’s a safe bet she will hit upon one of several eternal commencement themes. Probably the importance of giving back.
3. UNCG: Margot Lee Shetterly
Shorthand: Author of Hidden Figures
- Past speakers: Gov. Beverly Perdue (2009), former NC governor Jim Hunt (2004), Nido Qubein (motivational speaker and eventual president of High Point University, 2003), Erskine Bowles (political figure, 2000), Fred Chappell (former NC poet laureate, 1999), Art Buchwald (newspaper columnist, 1967, 1997), Maya Angelou (poet and author, 1986), Lesley Stahl (broadcast journalist, 1986), Charles Kuralt (journalist, 1973), Sen. George McGovern (1969)
- Bio: Shetterly’s first book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, pays tribute to the black, female mathematicians who crunched the numbers that created NASA. A film of the same name came out in December 2016 and was nominated for three Oscars, among dozens of other accolades. It has so far grossed more than $228 million.
- Ever heard of her? Maybe not, but you’ve probably heard of the book, and you better be aware of the movie.
- Appropriateness: Shetterly is a big get for UNCG, but the school is known for neither mathematics nor aerospace, though they do have a fine creative writing program. She didn’t go to UNCG and she’s not from around here. So it’s a push.
- What she’ll talk about: Here’s hoping that on May 12, Shetterly, who is black, will address aspects of racism, science and, maybe, economics — before she began her writing career, Shetterly was an investment banker for JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch.
4. Winston-Salem State University: Bakari Sellers
Shorthand: Former South Carolina politician, current CNN talking head
- Past speakers: Melissa Harris-Perry (journalist, 2016), Common (rapper, 2015), Michael Eric Dyson (author and educator, 2012), Stephen A. Smith (sports journalist, 2011)
- Bio: At 22, Sellers became the youngest member of the South Carolina General Assembly and the youngest African-American elected official in the country in 2006. In 2014, he lost his bid for lieutenant governor of South Carolina. His father is Cleveland Sellers, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was the only person convicted for the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968, when three protesters were killed by state troopers. He served seven months in prison and was pardoned in 1993.
- Ever heard of him? Maybe not yet, but this guy could be president someday.
- Appropriateness: Spot on. Sellers went to Morehouse, another HBCU, for his undergraduate degree, and he’s got a law degree from the University of South Carolina. He’s a featured political analyst on CNN, in high demand on the lecture circuit and is considered to be a rising star in the Democratic Party.
- What he’ll talk about: When Sellers speaks on May 19, he should explain the connection between his father’s activism and his own role as an elected official.
5. Salem College: Susan Goldberg
Shorthand: First female editor in chief of National Geographic
- Past speakers: Erika James (dean of Emory University Goizueta Business School, 2016), Freda Lewis-Hall (Pfizer CEO, 2015)
- Bio: The former editor of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer has done time at the San Jose Mercury News, USA Today, the Detroit Free Press and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as well as Bloomberg News. In her time at NatGeo beginning in 2015, the magazine has won three National Magazine Awards and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for its 2016 piece on gender. She is still editor in chief of the monthly magazine, as well as editorial director of National Geographic Partners.
- Ever heard of her: Probably not, unless you’re in media. But you know her work.
- Appropriateness: Having one of the most successful women in publishing speak at the country’s oldest school for women makes sense, though Goldberg herself went to Michigan State. This is certainly a badass graduation speaker, and kudos to Salem for booking her.
- What she’ll talk about: If she’s smart — and she undoubtedly is — on May 20 Goldberg will mine her magazine’s reporting on gender to speak to the Salem students about an issue that is currently affecting their campus.
6. UNC School of the Arts: Nancy Seruto
Shorthand: A Disney Imagineer
- Past speakers: David LaChappelle (photgrapher/director, 2015), Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Cheryl Isaac Boone (2015), Angus MacLachlan/Peter Bogdanovich (directors, 2010), Kristin Chenowith (actor, 2009), Danny Elfman (composer, 2007), Forrest Whitaker (actor, 2004), Mandy Patinkin (actor, 2001), Debbie Allen (actor and choreographer, 1992)
- Bio: Seruto runs all Disney theme parks and attractions around the world, and was the driving force behind the new Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Shanghai Disney.
- Ever heard of her: Not likely. But you’ve heard of Disney.
- Appropriateness: There’s no bigger name in entertainment than Disney, though Seruto is more associated with the parks than the films.
- What she spoke about: On May 6, Seruto told graduates about her own troubled career path, urging students to remain brave and confident in the face of fear.
7. Wake Forest University: Jon Meacham
Shorthand: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
- Past speakers: Stephen Colbert (TV host, 2015), Jill Abramson (former executive editor of the New York Times, 2014), Insar K. Nooye (PepsiCo CEO, 2011), Kenneth Chenault (American Express CEO, 2010), Vice President Joe Biden (2009), Arnold Palmer (professional golfer, 2005), Colin Powell (2004), Michael Bloomberg (businessman and former mayor of New York City, 2003), Sen. John McCain (2002), Barbara Bush (former first lady, 2001), Tom Clancy (author, 1992), Garry Trudeau (creator of Doonesbury, 1996), Maya Angelou (1985), Bill Moyers (journalist, 1984, 1970), Rep. Gerald Ford (1972), Walter Lippman (newspaper columnist, 1926)
- Bio: Meacham has authored definitive works — and bestsellers — on George HW Bush, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the latter of which won him a Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He is currently working on a piece about James and Dolley Madison. He’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Society of American Historians, a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University and the University of the South and a former executive editor at Random House.
- Ever heard of him: A solid maybe.
- Appropriateness: Meacham is a fantastic boilerplate pick for any university, though his ties to Vandy and Sewanee make him well suited to address the Deacon crowd. Still, compared to this year’s crop and Wake’s roster of past speakers, he drops to the back of the list.
- What he’ll talk about: It almost doesn’t matter — it will be brilliant and fascinating.
8. Bennett College: US Rep. Alma Adams
Shorthand: Local congresswoman
- Past speakers: In recent years, Bennett commencement speakers have general been past and present university presidents, though last year they had a financial advisor. And this year former Bennett President Johnetta Coles will be delivering the commencement address at Gettysburg College.
- Bio: Rep. Adams worked her way from a seat on the Greensboro School Board, before it merged with Guilford County, to Greensboro City Council and then a NC house district before winning the Congressional district previously represented by Mel Watt, whose career followed a similar trajectory. She is currently chair of the North Carolina Black Legislative Caucus.
- Ever heard of her: Yes, if you live around here.
- Appropriateness: Though Adams herself is an Aggie and not a Bennett Belle, she was an art professor at Bennett for 40 years. That makes her a natural — if somewhat uninspired — pick.
- What she talked about: On May 6, Adams spoke about the importance of HBCUs to the graduating students from the country’s oldest private college for black women.
9. Guilford College: Patricia Timmons-Goodson
Shorthand: First African-American female justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court
- Past speakers: Rev. William J. Barber II (activist, 2016), Jeff Thigpen (Guilford County Register of Deeds, 2013)
- Bio: Timmons-Goodson came to North Carolina from Florence, SC to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, worked for the Census Bureau and as an assistant district attorney before attaining her first judgeship in district court in 1984. Gov. Mike Easley appointed her to the state Supreme Court in January 2006; later that year she retained the seat in an election. She left the bench in 2012, and was appointed by President Obama to the US Commission on Civil Rights in 2016.
- Ever heard of her: Depends. How many state Supreme Court justices can you name?
- Appropriateness: Though Guilford’s graduation speakers have been historically lackluster — when Managing Editor Eric Ginsburg graduated in 2010, the speaker was the CEO of Tupperware, who had dropped out of the school — Timmons-Goodson has a tough act to follow. But her civil rights background should appeal to the graduates.
- What she’ll talk about: On Friday, Timmons-Godson would do well to tap into the social-justice currents that run through Guilford and its students, with perhaps some practical advice on how to make a difference in Trump’s America.
10. Elon Law School: Robert J. Grey Jr.
Shorthand: Former president of the American Bar Association
- Past speakers: David Gergen (political analyst, 2009), Sen. Kay Hagan (2010), Sen. Richard Burr (2011), Attorney General and future Gov. Roy Cooper (2015)
- Bio: Grey was the second African American to head the ABA, with which he’s been involved since 1998. In addition to his law practice, for a time he chaired the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board. Since 2010 he has been on the board of the Legal Services Corporation, the country’s largest provider of legal assistance to the poor.
- Ever heard of him?: Nope. Unless you’re a lawyer, in which case it’s a maybe.
- Appropriateness: Sure. As far as attorneys go, Grey boasts a pretty interesting résumé. But he’s not exactly a standout among the Triad’s commencement speakers this season.
- What he’ll talk about: At the Elon Law commencement on May 20, Grey might encourage some of these newly-minted lawyers to use their powers and privileges to help the less fortunate.
11. Greensboro College: Lynette Tannis
Shorthand: An alum who teaches at Harvard
- Past speakers: Joey Cheek (Olympic speed-skater, 2012), Navy Cmdr. Porter Halyburton (former POW, 2011), Elizabeth Dole (former senator, 2007)
- Bio: Tannis (Class of ’95) earned a master’s and a doctorate in education at Harvard by 2013. Her work centers on juvenile justice education, and her 2014 book Educating Incarcerated Youth established her as a national authority on the subject.
- Ever heard of her: No.
- Appropriateness: Definitely — she’s a graduate who parlayed her Greensboro College degree into a position at the top of her field.
- What she’ll talk about: On Saturday, Tannis is sure to talk about her experiences with kids in jail and the challenges they face. Perhaps she will issue a challenge to her fellow Greensboro College grads to go out and make a difference. We hope so.
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