The Collegian
Tuesday, February 07, 2023

The case for hiring a high-profile commencement speaker

<p>Steve Jobs has been one of many well-known figures to offer college commencement addresses | Courtesy of Matthew Yohe/Creative Commons</p>

Steve Jobs has been one of many well-known figures to offer college commencement addresses | Courtesy of Matthew Yohe/Creative Commons

Former University President Edward Ayers did a fantastic job imparting wisdom to the 2015 graduates at last year’s commencement ceremony, and he deserved the keynote spot. In other years, however, the University of Richmond has missed valuable branding opportunities from having high-profile commencement speakers.

You may be thinking, isn’t this author a senior? I bet she’s writing this because she wants to see a celebrity. To those critics I say, well…yeah. But my motives only partially stem from a desire to fan-girl at my own graduation. A high-profile commencement speaker can not only satisfy UR’s faculty, staff, and students, but can help critically brand the university and propel it into the national spotlight.

Unless you are a social-media-avoiding-hermit, in recent years you’ve seen clips and highlights from graduation ceremonies featuring famous faces. Natalie Portman’s commencement address from this May has over one million views and secured placements in Vanity Fair, Hollywood Reporter, EW, Huffington Post and more. Steve Jobs’ address at Stanford has earned well-over eight million views since 2006 and Ed Helms’ speech at our neighboring University of Virginia’s valediction ceremony had roughly 240,000 in its first two months after posting.

The number of YouTube views is easy to find, and while impressive, it only scratches the surface in detailing the gained attention from a celebrity speaker. It doesn’t take into account all of the articles, social posts or word of mouth exposure generated by the event, which are undoubtedly higher than the video-sharing site’s figures.

“We’re a hidden gem.” “Richmond doesn’t get the kind of national attention it deserves.” “Richmond is just as good as UVa., Boston College, Wake Forest and [insert any other school here], but we’re just not on people’s radar.”

Such statements are common, and frankly, I agree. Part of the reason it rings true though, is because these schools have recognized the power of celebrity to attract national attention. Barack Obama, Peyton Manning, Stephen Colbert, Katie Couric, Lena Dunham, John Kerry, Condoleezza Rice, Joe Biden, Barbara Bush. Recognize them? Each has given a commencement address at one of Richmond’s self-described peer institutions within the past five years. And every time someone shares the video or tells a story about the speaker, the school’s name reaches someone new. Whether that person is an employer now-assured of the school’s reputation or a high school student reaching to look up the school she’s never heard of, this kind of exposure is valuable.

We’re in a viral age where everything gets talked, tweeted, pinned and posted about, and Richmond is missing out on a valuable opportunity to become the subject of people’s conversations. So why aren’t we doing it? With the school having over $1 billion in unrestricted net assets, I don’t buy cost as an excuse.

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