Thursday, May 17, 2018

No bamboo: Commencement speakers need to `act boldly' -- May 17, 2018 column


The late Texas columnist Molly Ivins may have given the best commencement advice ever.

“They told me to give y’all some advice that will be useful in your future lives. This is mine: Don’t Plant Bamboo in a Small Backyard,” she supposedly said. 

Alas, the story is likely apocryphal.

But it’s just about perfect commencement advice: practical, funny and memorable.

Ivins, who died in 2007, was a sharp, witty political and cultural critic. I wish we had her folksy, liberal voice this commencement season.

Most big names chosen to sprinkle wisdom on the day of celebration resort to utterly forgettable platitudes.

“Give yourself permission to fail in order to experience the privilege of success,” actor Boris Kodjoe told Virginia Commonwealth University’s class of 2018.

“Act boldly,” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe advised University of Richmond grads. “Be fearless,” Apple CEO Tim Cook urged at Duke University,

You can hear grads nudging each other and saying, “Wow, `act boldly’ – I never thought of that before!” At least such advice does no harm.

Nobody wants to be the commencement speaker whose remarks ignite a social media firestorm.

That’s what happened when Nella Gray Barkley, Sweet Briar College class of 1955, delivered remarks at her alma mater, one of the nation’s last remaining women’s colleges.

In one fell swoop, she seemed to belittle feminism and the #MeToo movement and waxed nostalgic about the days when an engagement ring was more prized than a college degree.

“I’m no raging feminist. I actually love men, and I married one,” she said.

“I have little patience with the woman who arrives breathlessly at her boss’s hotel room for a so-called conference,” she said in her speech. “What did she think was going to happen?”

And, it’s “only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room.”
Barkley, a career coach in South Carolina, received the “distinguished alumna” award in 2002. She's touted on the college website for taking out a life insurance policy with Sweet Briar as sole beneficiary.

When students and grads took to social media to complain about her speech, college president Meredith Woo sent an email.

“You don’t have to accept or refuse her perspective – that is not the point – but I ask you to think about it,” Woo wrote, Inside Higher Ed reported.

I suppose there are worse ways to launch one’s post-college life than having to listen to someone say things that infuriate you. If nothing else, it’s good practice for conference calls at the office. (Remember the mute button.)

But just as commencement isn’t the ideal venue to knock a social movement embraced by many in the audience, it also isn’t the place for a speaker to begin settling scores.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his commencement address at Virginia Military Institute to encourage cadets to remember the importance of truth, ethics and integrity.

In normal times, such advice would be typical inspirational fare, but Tillerson spent 14 months in the Trump administration, where President Donald Trump is known for his estrangement from facts. 

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” Tillerson warned.  

The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil did not call out Trump by name, but there was no doubt who he meant when he said: “When we as a people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

He told cadets integrity “is the most valuable asset you have,” and urged them to seek out employers who set high ethical standards.

“Blessed is the man who doesn’t blame all of his failures on someone else. Blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is,” Tillerson said.

Critics complained he waited too long to speak out and didn’t go far enough.

Maybe in the future Tillerson will follow other commencement speakers’ advice and “act boldly” and “be fearless.”

Molly Ivins would. And that’s no bamboo.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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