Spring is always a riveting time for observers of American higher education. Indeed, the end of the school year portends two time-honored rituals for our colleges: the announcement of embarrassing information they hope students will forget over the summer and commencement. The latter is especially exciting because it lends higher education an imprimatur that has been diminished of late.
And how better to shore up one’s imprimatur than by having the President deliver the commencement address, as Ohio State did yesterday? President Obama praised the institution as well as is its students, whom he believed “possessed…that most American of ideas – that people who love their country can change it.” However, the President also demonstrated that these addresses often serve to bolster the speaker’s legitimacy. After praising Ohio State’s ROTC cadets and volunteers, he discussed the concept of “citizenship”: the notion that, in his words, “with rights come responsibilities – to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.” He noted that no political party has an exclusive claim to this concept. With that said, he then argued that fulfilling the obligations of citizenship required addressing certain issues — gun violence, climate change, our moribund auto industry, domestic energy — that suspiciously resemble his policy priorities.
Obviously, none of this is at all suspicious: when any elected official has a podium, they’re bound to expound on their agenda. What’s more, colleges undoubtedly know this when they extend their invitations. Since politicians appear to be a popular choice for commencement addresses, this year’s seniors should expect to hear a good deal more about their elected officials’ programs than they might like. One might anticipate more seniors arguing that commencement should celebrate their successes rather than those of politicians and university administrators. Of course, this would assume students paid attention–hardly a safe bet.