Jill Abramson lost her job in a humiliating fashion this week, but there’s at least one honor she hasn’t been stripped of: She’s still slated to give the commencement address at Wake Forest University on Sunday. That sets her apart from a growing list of public figures—including International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice—whose invitations to give graduation speeches were revoked in response to student protests of their political views, or those of their institutions.
Students’ demands for a speaker whose every action and association represents their own values has prompted some to question how much it really matters who’s at the podium. After all, commencement addresses are notorious for being pretty formulaic and forgettable. As it turns out, there’s empirical data showing that most commencement speeches really are just compendia of a few key messages.
For a 2011 paper in the journal Current Psychology, Jenifer Partch and Richard Kinnier, psychologists at Arizona State University, used content analysis to identify and compare the themes of 90 commencement speeches delivered at American colleges between 1990 and 2007. No speaker or coed institution was represented more than once.
Partch and Kinnier also looked at how the speakers’ messages varied by gender—of the speaker as well as the audience. They divided their sample into three groups: speeches delivered by male speakers at coed universities; by female speakers at coed universities; and by female speakers at women’s colleges. (They couldn’t find enough examples of men speaking at women’s colleges to generate a meaningful sample.)
They had two readers—a doctoral student and a licensed psychologist—each read a random majority of the transcripts, taking note of recurring themes. After reading through the transcripts, the two readers conferred and came up with a list of 10 common themes. Next, three independent raters read all of the speeches in their entirety, with an eye towards identifying the presence or absence of each theme in each speech.
The most popular theme was an entreaty to help others: 64 percent of speakers urged graduates to “give back,” “serve humanity,” or “make the world a better place.” 61 percent told them to “do the right thing,” using phrases like “do your duty,” “have integrity,” and “value higher order principles.” Just over half encouraged the students to “expand their horizons” and seek challenges in their lives.
The gender breakdown reveals some interesting trends, too. Of the three cohorts, female speakers at women’s colleges were most likely to advise graduates to be true to themselves (61 percent); male speakers at coed colleges were least likely (34 percent).
When addressing an all-female audience, 49 percent of women speakers urged their audience to “cherish special others”—but when speaking to a mixed audience, just 26 percent did. Male speakers only offered this advice 20 percent of the time. “The mainly female exhortation to be true to oneself is consistent with the philosophy of feminism…which advocates that women should resist sexist societal pressures to conform and instead follow their own passion in life,” write Partch and Kinnier.
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