We’ve got 10 four-year colleges in the Triad, competing for students, for media attention, grant dollars, real estate… and, of course, commencement speakers, which have become an important signifier of a school’s status to potential recruits.
We’ve been ranking them since 2017, and some patterns are starting to emerge.
Wake Forest University’s list of speakers throughout the years is insane, though they don’t always deliver a big name. High Point University has chosen with distinction the last few years; they won in 2017 with Wolf Blitzer. NC A&T University is hit or miss — for every Laila Ali there’s an obscure alumni — and on average, they’re outpaced by Winston-Salem State, who had the rapper Common in 2015. UNCG has had a few standout years in an otherwise spotty record — they won last year with Joey Cheek and took it again this year with Ken Jeong, far and away the most famous on the list.
But raw fame is not all we look at. We consider local ties, commitment to higher education, connection to the school and its message, and appropriateness to the graduates.
None of which, this year, could add up to Ken Jeong.
This year’s crop is among the most diverse. For the first time there are two Asian Americans in our Top 3. Five of the Top 10 are women, and five are African American. There is just one white male on the list.
1. Ken Jeong (actor, doctor), UNCG
Shorthand: A bona fide, currently working movie star
Past speakers: Joey Cheek (Olympic Gold Medalist from Greensboro, 2018 winner), Margot Lee Shetterly (author of Hidden Figures, 2017), Gov. Beverly Perdue (2009), Jim Hunt (former NC governor, 2004), Nido Qubein (motivational speaker and future 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: Jeong has done stand-up, television movies — way too many to list, but we should include The Hangover series, “Community,” Crazy Rich Asians and (spoiler alert!) a small cameo in Avengers: Endgame. He’s a graduate of Page High School (Class of ’86), Duke University (undergrad) and UNC-Chapel Hill (med school — yeah, he’s a doctor).
Ever heard of them: It’s almost impossible not to.
Appropriateness: Nailed it. Jeong is a true local, a huge success and a strong believer in education. Plus, the guy’s absolutely hilarious.
What he’ll speak about: Jeong is something of a wild card, but his parents, who still live in Greensboro, will probably be in the audience so he should stick to the script.
2. Michio Kaku (theoretical physicist), High Point University
Shorthand: The cool scientist from TV
Past speakers: Josh Groban (singer/actor, 2018), Wolf Blitzer (broadcast journalist, 2017 winner), 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: Kaku is one of the most famous physicists in the world — he’s a fixture on television, where he often talks about technology, futurism and the applications of theoretical physics on the actual world. Interesting side note: When he was a kid, he built a particle accelerator in his parents’ garage.
Ever heard of them: Maybe? Even a famous American physicist is sort of obscure. You would probably recognize him on TV, but not on the street.
Appropriateness: Kaku has few, if any, ties to North Carolina. He’s a third-generation Japanese American who grew up in California and went to school in New York City. Still, it’s a pretty good get.
What he’ll speak about: The man’s a genius, so he’s highly qualified to talk about anything at all, but he’ll probably stick to his wheelhouse on May 11 and make some predictions about the world to come.
3. Frederick J. Ryan Jr. (publisher and CEO of the Washington Post), Wake Forest University
Shorthand: A media big-shot.
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 (US secretary of state, 2004), Michael Bloomberg (former businessman and 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: Before taking the reins of one of the country’s most influential newspapers in 2014, Ryan founded Politico in 2007. Before that, he was a member of President Ronald Reagan’s staff in the White House and continued on as Reagan’s chief of staff after his presidency ended.
Ever heard of them: Probably not, but he’s a huge deal in journalism circles, and also the CEO crowd after turning around the Post.
Appropriateness: As impressive as he is, Ryan’s just another bold-faced name on an agency list with no real ties to North Carolina. He went to the University of Southern California for both his undergrad and law degrees, and while it’s possible he has a house on Bald Head Island or something, there’s no real connection.
What he’ll speak about: Ryan’s Politico came in ahead of the curve on the digital media front. Under his leadership, the Post has won Pulitzers, gained readers and started making money while other newspapers around the country become less profitable and less relevant. Perhaps he will discuss the importance of being unique.
4. Stephanie D. Wilson (astronaut), Salem College
Shorthand: The second black woman in space, a genuine NASA astronaut
Past speakers: Susan Goldberg (first female editor in chief of National Geographic, 2017), Erika James (dean of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, 2016), Freda Lewis-Hall (Pfizer CEO, 2015)
Bio: Wilson’s been on three separate shuttle missions, with more than 42 days logged in space.
Ever heard of them: No.
Appropriateness: No local ties, but hey — she’s been to space! And as one of the few surviving women’s colleges, Salem’s choice definitely works.
What she’ll speak about: On May 25, Wilson will likely give Salem College graduates some insight on working in a male-dominated field.
5. Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Broadway musical director), UNC School of the Arts
Shorthand: A UNCSA grad with an amazing career in showbiz.
Past speakers: Paul Tazewell (Hamilton costume designer, 2018), 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: Campbell is local — she’s from Wilson, went to Governor’s School at Salem College before graduating from UNCSA in 1992 and has worked steadily in Broadway musical theater since. She was the musical director for Mean Girls, and currently is musical supervisor for The Prom, which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical. On the philanthropic side, Campbell helmed Paul Newman’s charity efforts for years before starting her own nonprofit, ASTEP (Artists Striving To End Poverty) with the funds from selling her house.
Ever heard of them: No. But she’s probably never heard of you either.
Appropriateness: Spot on.
What she spoke about: On Saturday, Campbell called an audible and addressed the recent shooting at UNC-Charlotte before dispensing wisdom upon the graduates. The Journal quoted her as saying: “There is no person, no relationship, no job, no reward, no outfit, no body type, no material possession and no amount of money that will make you happy forever. So, stop looking outside yourself for it because it does not exist.”
6 (TIE). Kwanza Jones (According to her website, “Investor, artist, philanthropist”), Winston-Salem State University and Bennett College
Shorthand: The woman who came out of nowhere and donated all that money to Bennett College.
Past speakers: Bennett — US Rep. Alma Adams (2017) (For many years, the tradition at Bennett was for the president to speak). WSSU — Byron Pitts (journalist, 2018), Melissa Harris-Perry (journalist, 2016), Common (rapper, 2015), Michael Eric Dyson (author and educator, 2012), Stephen A. Smith (sports journalist, 2011)
Bio: When Bennett College hit dire financial straits last year, Jones and her husband José E. Feliciano ponied up a $1 million gift in honor of Jones’ mother and aunt, both Bennett Belles. Jones is herself a brand: a venture capitalist, motivational lifestyle speaker and performer
Ever heard of them: We have now.
Appropriateness: Hey, she gave $1 million to a HCBU, so why not?
What she spoke about: On Saturday she closed with a plea to the Bennett Belles: “You have things on your head. These are not hats. These are crowns.”. She’ll be at WSSU on May 10 for her encore.
8. Johnnetta Cole (academic), Guilford College
Shorthand: Serial college president.
Past speakers: Patricia Timmons-Goodson (first African-American female justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, 2017), Rev. William J. Barber II (activist, 2016), Jeff Thigpen (Guilford County Register of Deeds, 2013)
Bio: In 1987, Cole became the first female African-American president of Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, serving 10 years. She was Bennett College’s president from 2002 to 2007, and then worked as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Black Art until 2017.
Ever heard of them: She was big news when she came to Greensboro.
Appropriateness: Sure. Cole’s a historic figure who has spent a lot of time in the city
What she spoke about: We’re still looking for a transcript of the May 4 event.
9. Willie A. Deese (president of Merck’s manufacturing division) NC A&T University
Shorthand: An alumnus with a huge corporate job.
Past speakers: Laila Ali (Muhammad Ali’s daughter, 2017), First Lady Michelle Obama (2012), US Rep. John Lewis (2015), Donna Brazile (author and political analyst, 2014)
Bio: As both president and executive vice president at Merck, one of the country’s largest pharmaceutical firms, Deese oversees 26,000 employees in 85 countries, and administers a budget of $9 billion.
Ever heard of them: No. But he probably likes it that way.
Appropriateness: Totally. Deese is an Aggie — Class of ’77 — and in 2016 he donated $1 million to his alma mater. He’s been at the top of his field for decades, which he largely credits to his education at A&T.
What he’ll speak about: Aggie Pride, naturally.
10. George Johnson (dean emeritus, Elon University School of Law), Greensboro College
Shorthand: The oldest African-American law-school teacher in town.
Past speakers: Joey Cheek (Olympic speed-skater, 2012), Navy Cmdr. Porter Halyburton (former POW, 2011), Elizabeth Dole (former senator, 2007)
Bio: Johnson was a founding faculty member of Elon’s law school in downtown Greensboro and served five years as dean before earning the honorarium of emeritus. Before that he served as counsel for a US House committee, and back in the 1970s served in the Carter administration.
Ever heard of them: Yes, but only if you’re a lawyer.
Appropriateness: Not bad. He certainly qualifies as local; definitely accomplished; obviously committed to education. Bonus points, too, for getting a black guy.
What he’ll speak about: His speech on May 10 is titled, “To Build Up AND to Tear Down.”