Who’d Want to Give a Commencement Speech Anymore?

A recent graduate wears a garment with their graduation year on the University of Southern California campus Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Tim Cook has delivered at least seven commencement addresses since becoming CEO of Apple. Superstar Taylor Swift, whose concerts have been credited with lifting local economies, addressed New York University’s graduation ceremony in 2022. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Dimon — they’ve all given graduation speeches more than once.

They’re obviously not doing it for the money (and typically there isn’t any). Instead, speakers have long seen graduation ceremonies as offering something increasingly rare: a stage where a large group of people gather to hear speakers impart wisdom, advice or whatever else they want to talk about.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

The appeal of being a commencement speaker, however, seems to be waning.

Just three Fortune 50 CEOs appear to be commencement speakers this year, as colleges have faced campus protests over the war in the Gaza Strip and student arrests, and wealthy alumni threatening to break ties with their alma maters over antisemitism.

“The idea of CEOs going out aggressively and speaking anywhere near this environment on campuses, it just doesn’t seem like the moment for them to be doing that,” said David Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association.

CEOs are tired of talking. At a recent meeting of executive speechwriters, Murray said one takeaway stood out. As one presenter put it, “Less is more in ’24.”

Murray highlighted the sentiment in the Professional Speechwriters Association’s May newsletter: “Folks will increasingly keep their leaders out of the spotlight,” he wrote, describing the current moment as one in which “even formerly anodyne messages encouraging employees to vote” sound partisan to some.

That approach marks a drastic change from when executives made statements in droves after the death of a Black man, George Floyd, in police custody in 2020.

“They didn’t get rewarded for it,” Murray said. “They got called woke. One group said they didn’t go far enough, one group said they went too far, and now they’re definitely in a phase of ‘We comment on things that absolutely have essential bearing on our company and our business.’”

Campuses reflect an era of division. Before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, the war in Gaza and the campus protests that followed, the City University of New York School of Law announced that it would have no commencement speaker. The school had faced a backlash when speakers at previous commencements focused on their support for Palestinians.

After protests on campus related to the war, and the ensuing controversy over how school administrations handled them, Columbia University announced that it would cancel its main commencement ceremony altogether. And across the country, as many ceremonies carried on without disruption, several have been interrupted by protests and walkouts, some targeting the school’s choice of speaker.

Speechwriters are increasingly preparing for disruption, said Michael Franklin, executive director of the industry association Speechwriters of Color.

“A new part of the package this year, in addition to the remarks that they would deliver, is also having some alternative transition remarks in the event of a disruption,” he said.

Some executives prefer chats to speeches. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella accepted an honorary doctorate at Georgia Tech this year but did not give a commencement speech. Instead, at a special ceremony in January, he delivered a five-minute speech, left the stage to remove his graduation robe and returned for a “fireside chat” with the school’s president, Ángel Cabrera.

“They love fireside chats,” Murray said of executives. “They want to sit down, have a chummy conversation, look charming, be charming, say short things, kind of stick to their key messages.”

Kate Linkous, an executive vice president in Edelman’s corporate reputation practice, said she’s also noticed more conferences replacing their keynote speeches with fireside chats.

“The commencement speech is one of our last few brilliant examples of a long-form speech,” she said.

Will the commencement address as we know it survive? One potential outcome is that the address just becomes boring, as speakers focus on avoiding controversy.

“Whenever you’re in a position of trying to sand something down, you end up appealing to no one and saying nothing,” said Ben Krauss, a former speechwriter for Joe Biden and other politicians and CEO of Fenway Strategies, a speech writing and strategic communications firm. His advice?

“People have been protesting commencements for as long as there have been commencements,” he said. “If someone interrupts, someone interrupts. That’s just kind of a natural feature of human communication.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company