We do this every year — or, at least we try to. Last year’s Commencement Speaker Face-Off was another casualty of the pandemic year. Even now, we are still living it as schools scrambled for speakers and live ceremonies with mixed success rates after the governor allowed for in-person events. In the end, though, the results were pretty good, with important and impressive people, some of whom come from our very own communities.
1. Wake Forest University: Condoleezza Rice/Pete Buttigieg/Kendall Hinton
- Date: May 17 (live/virtual)
- Shorthand: Wealthy university stacks the deck with a trifecta of big-name commencement speakers.
- Bio: Rice was the secretary of state under President Bush. Buttigieg was a 2016 presidential candidate and is the current secretary of transportation. Hinton was pulled off the Denver Broncos practice squad in 2020 and tapped to start a regular-season NFL game against the Saints (he got clobbered, but still).
- Ever heard of them: Yes, with the possible exception of Hinton.
- Appropriateness: Hinton, at least, went to Wake. The other two are sending pre-recorded remarks.
- What they’ll speak about: Does it even matter?
- Past speakers: Frederick J. Ryan Jr. (publisher and CEO of the Washington Post), 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), 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)
- Watch it: WFU YouTube
2. NC A&T State University: Sterling K. Brown (actor)
- Date: May 9 (live)
- Shorthand: That guy’s been in everything.
- Bio: Brown has dozens of TV credits (a lot of cop roles) and lots of voice-over work, but you most likely recognize him from Black Panther or “This is Us.”
- Ever heard of them: Almost definitely, if you’re Black.
- Appropriateness: Unlike T’challa, there are no HBCUs in Brown’s past — he went to Stanford and NYU. But he has been to Wakanda….
- What he spoke about: “Do not let the world convince you that you are any less than you can be. Do not let this nation convince you that there is no seat for you at the table.”
- 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)
- Watch it: It’s on the Aggie YouTube channel.
3. High Point University: Cynt Marshall
- Date: May 7-8 (live/virtual)
- Shorthand: The First Black, female CEO in the NBA.
- Bio: She was the first Black cheerleader at UC Berkeley, then spent 40 years in the corporate works before becoming CEO of the Dallas Mavericks in 2018.
- Ever heard of them: Unless you’re an NBA fan, possible but not likely.
- Appropriateness: Seems on mission for HPU, which likes big-name speakers and must also demonstrate some woke-ness.
- What she spoke about: She challenged HPU grads to always live life “like the ball is in your court…. Handle the ball with character. Don’t cheat. Always tell the truth. Your integrity is not for sale. Do the right thing. There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. You have been taught how to do both.”
- Past speakers: Michio Kaku (theoretical physicist, 2019), 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)
- Watch it: highpoint.edu/
4. UNCSA: Stephen McKinley Henderson (actor), UNCSA alum (strong!)
- Date: May 22 (live/virtual)
- Shorthand: One of UNCSA’s most successful grads (Class of ’72).
- Bio: A character actor with serious theater chops and scores of film and television roles, with star turns in August Wilson’s Century Cycle and every iteration of “Law & Order.” His biggest role yet maybe in the upcoming screen adaptaion of Dune.
- Ever heard of them: No, but you would know his face.
- Appropriateness: Spot-on.
- What he’ll speak about: Hopefully his time in Winston-Salem at UNCSA.
- Past speakers: Paul Tazewell (Hamilton costume designer, 2018), David LaChappelle (photographer/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)
- Watch it: UNCSA YouTube channel
5. Guilford College: Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell
- Date: May 7-8 (live), May 15 (virtual)
- Shorthand: Female biophysicist whose work got whitewashed.
- Bio: While still a student in 1967, Bell Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars — stars that emit radio waves from their poles. This discovery was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, but her name was not on the award — it went to her theses supervisor instead.
- Ever heard of them: No, but that was by design.
- Appropriateness: Guilford College loves shit like this.
- What they’ll speak about: How she got screwed by the patriarchy, probably. No footage on the GC YouTube page.
- 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)
- Watch it: Guilford YouTube May 15.
6. Salem College: Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones (doctor, activist)
- Date: May 8 (live/virtual)
- Shorthand: The doctor who calls racism a public health crisis.
- Bio: A Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard, Dr. Jones’ CV also includes Morehouse School of Medicine, Stanford University, Emory University, the American Journal of Public Health and TEDx. She’s the one who pointed out that it may be racism, and not race, that is a health risk factor.
- Ever heard of them: She’s not a household name outside of racial-justice circles, where she’s sort of a rock star.
- Appropriateness: A brilliant woman at Salem College is spot on.
- What she spoke about: While the wind blew her notes about, Dr. Jones used the COVID-19 pandemic to fortify her thesis. “Racism structures, if you will, a dual reality.”
- 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)
- Watch it: Salem College YouTube.
7. Elon University: Daniel J. Watts (actor)/ Valarie Kaur (activist)
- Date: May 21 + May 19
- Shorthand: Watts (commencement) is a Tony-nominated actor and alum. Kaur (baccalaureate) is an activist for social justice.
- Bio: Watts became involved in theater when he was 13 and was encouraged to audition for a play about a historically black neighborhood in Charlotte. He graduated from Elon in 2004 and has since gone on to star in multiple theater and TV shows including Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, for which he received a Tony nomination for his breakout role as Ike Turner. Valarie Kaur is a lawyer who came into the public eye in 2016 at the National Moral Revival Watch Night services, where she spoke along with North Carolina pastor Rev. William Barber. Footage of her 6-minute address has since garnered 40 million views.
- Ever heard of them: Maybe?
- Appropriateness: He’s a big name who has starred in multiple shows both on and off the screen. She’s a big name, with a strong moral compass. A lawyer herself, perhaps she can imbue some of these qualities in her audience.
- What they’ll speak about: He’ll likely speak out his time at Elon and representation in the arts. She’ll likely speak out Revolutionary Love, no doubt.
- Past speakers: David Gergen (political analyst, 2009), Sen. Kay Hagan (2010), Sen. Richard Burr (2011), Attorney General and future Gov. Roy Cooper (2015)
- Watch it: Live at elon.edu/u/live/
8. Bennett College: The 2021 Bennett Belles
- Date: May 15 (virtual)
- Shorthand: They are their own graduation speaker.
- Bio: This year’s group of Bennett Belles has decided to share their own personal journeys rather than get someone else to speak. “It’s been a challenging and unusual year for them, and so they were reluctant to invite a speaker who would deliver ‘you are the future’ platitudes,” Suzanne E. Walsh, president of Bennett College, told Yes Weekly.
- Ever heard of them: Not yet, but someday soon: Bennett Belles do big things.
- Appropriateness: Considering the pandemic, the difficulty and cost of booking a speaker and the wishes of the graduates themselves, rather solid. In judging connectedness between school and speaker, nothing else comes close.
- What they’ll speak about: Their own lived experience.
- Past speakers: US Rep. Alma Adams (2017) (For many years, the tradition at Bennett was for the president to speak)
- Watch it: Live on the Bennett College YouTube channel.
9. UNCG: Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam Jr.
- Date: May 7-8 (live/virtual)
- Shorthand: He’s the chancellor, so he can do what he wants.
- Bio: Even if he wasn’t chancellor of UNCG, Gilliam would make a great speaker. He spent much of his 30-year career in education at UCLA, most recently as dean of the School of Public Affairs, and he’s been showered with awards since the early 2000s. He’s been a game-changer at UNCG, advancing virtually every aspect of the university’s presence in Greensboro. Plus, he’s a former college football player.
- Ever heard of them: Yes, if you live in Greensboro. The guy is everywhere.
- Appropriateness: It checks out.
- What he spoke about: A pep talk worthy of Nido Qubein.
- Past speakers: Ken Jeong (2019 winner), 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)
- Watch it: Lots of video at commencement.uncg.edu.
10. Greensboro College: Rev. Jill Alventosa-Brown
- Date: May 8 (virtual/live)
- Shorthand: She’s currently the associate pastor of the West Market Street United Methodist Church.
- Bio: An anti-racist pastor with 20 years in Triad churches; she’s also part of the Greensboro Faith Leaders Council.
- Ever heard of them: Maybe, if you’re an activist or a Methodist or some combination thereof.
- Appropriateness: Sure. Why not?
- What they’ll speak about: She gave a Biblical argument for inclusivity, and discussed “encounters of holy and sacred consequence” as the graduates move on.
- Past speakers: Joey Cheek (Olympic speed-skater, 2012), Navy Cmdr. Porter Halyburton (former POW, 2011), Elizabeth Dole (former US senator, 2007)
- Watch it: GC’s Religious Life YouTube.
11. Winston-Salem State University: “We will not have speakers. We will have words of inspiration” from CASBE Interim Dean Dr. Jacqueline Madry-Taylor and SOHS Interim Dean Dr. Leslee Battle (Class of ’93).
- Date: May 20-21
- Shorthand: Rams on parade.
- Bio: A couple of career academics take the podium as WSSU restaffs.
- Ever heard of them: If you are a Ram, yes.
- Appropriateness: Pretty appropriate, all things considered — there is a pandemic going on, after all. And they both work there, for now.
- What they’ll speak about: N/A
- Past speakers: 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)
- Watch it: Catch it live on WSSU YouTube page.