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From left to right, Condoleezza Rice, Jeb Bush, Christine Lagarde and Dave Larsen
Rice: Mark Duncan/AP • Bush: Wilfredo Lee/AP • Lagarde: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images • Larsen: Peter Clevering, courtesy of Trinity Christian College
From left to right, Condoleezza Rice, Jeb Bush, Christine Lagarde and Dave Larsen

Famous last words

Religion | In a season of commencement controversy, some Christian colleges look close to home for speakers

Issue: "Day of reckoning," June 14, 2014

Famous commencement speakers make graduations extra special and bring notoriety to schools—but secular colleges are becoming infamous for changing speakers at the last minute because of protests from leftist students. This year former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew from Rutgers’ graduation ceremony following student protests, and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde did the same after being verbally attacked by Smith College students.

Students at Christian colleges and universities haven’t been part of that commencement trend, but some made themselves heard during the spring semester. In April Azusa Pacific University “postponed” a scheduled visit by conservative sociologist Charles Murray: The university’s president, Jon Wallace, wrote, “Given the lateness of the semester and the full record of Dr. Murray’s scholarship, I realized we needed more time to prepare for a visit and postponed Wednesday’s conversation.” 

Murray responded, in an open letter to Azusa students, that his visit had “been planned for months. … Ask yourself if I’m anything more dangerous than an earnest and nerdy old guy. Azusa Pacific’s administration wants to protect you from earnest and nerdy old guys who have opinions that some of your faculty do not share. Ask if this is why you’re getting a college education.” 

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Azusa had Sacramento megachurch pastor Ray Johnston as its commencement speaker, while other administrations chose political orators. Liberty University followed up an April speech by Mormon Glenn Beck with a May commencement address by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a convert from Hinduism to Catholicism. Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. said prior to Jindal’s speech, “We believe that you our graduates will be better equipped to defend your faith and your values because you have heard firsthand from leaders who have different theological and political beliefs.”

Jeb Bush, who has moved from Episcopalianism to Catholicism, spoke at Grove City College’s commencement. The college did not disclose his fee, but the website for the company that handles his engagements says it is at least $40,000 for each time he speaks. Victoria Morra, a 2014 graduate, told me, “Grove City’s reputation for conservatism makes Jeb Bush (and Laura Bush a few years ago) a reasonable fit for headlining the graduation ceremony.” 

The most famous commencement speaker at other Christian colleges was probably Ben Carson (a conservative Seventh Day Adventist) at Regent University. Eastern University invited Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. The speaker at California Baptist University was E. Bruce Heilman, an 88-year-old World War II veteran and motorcyclist who is chancellor at the University of Richmond. Geneva College welcomed Greg Baylor, the Christian attorney currently representing the college in an Obamacare lawsuit. Wheaton College chose alumnus and parent David Iglesias, a former U.S. district attorney whose dismissal in 2006 by the Bush administration was highly controversial.

How do Christian colleges choose commencement speakers? Some set up committees and seek the famous, but Trinity Christian College near Chicago chose Dave Larsen, an alumnus who directs the Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education in Chicago. Trinity President Steve Timmermans told me he makes the selection and does not look for fame: “Commencement should be a time to celebrate student accomplishments in a way that honors God. … I try to find an excellent speaker already connected to the college in some way, and avoid political figures and other speakers whose presence would be a distraction from our purpose.”

—Dave Swavely is a Pennsylvania pastor and novelist

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