Ambivalence about DempseySelecting a speaker for commencement is a difficult and weighty task. This year, President Richard Brodhead chose Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama’s chief military advisor, to serve as the Class of 2014’s commencement speaker. Along with his numerous Distinguished Service medals, Dempsey holds the title of the highest-ranking military officer in the United States.
The announcement of this year’s commencement speaker offers an opportunity to reflect on the qualities that make an exceptional speaker and the responsibilities he or she has when addressing the graduating class.
Having received a master's degree in English in 1984, Dempsey has a connection to Duke—an important characteristic of a high quality commencement speaker. He salutes Duke for being his "intellectual oasis" where he was able to broaden his scope of knowledge beyond military life. As he ruminates on his time here, Dempsey will give the graduates occasion to reflect on their experiences and how Duke has prepared them for their future endeavors.
A commencement speaker should be an advocate for life-long learning and exemplify the values of the University, particularly knowledge in the service of society. Dempsey has dedicated his life to serving his country and prides himself on what he calls a "personal campaign of learning."
The speaker should, of course, also demonstrate admirable public speaking skills and offer a thoughtful speech. On his visit to Duke in January of 2012, Dempsey demonstrated his impressive ability to engage with an audience, as he will surely do so again in May.
Not all reactions to Dempsey have been positive, however. Many students have found this choice controversial because of Dempsey’s senior role in military operations that many find morally deplorable—drone strikes that kill civilians, cruelty and a lack of due process at Guantanamo Bay and the War in Afghanistan. By inviting Dempsey to speak at commencement, we are claiming that he is someone that exemplifies the values of the institution. But, despite his apparent love of knowledge, he has overseen operations that many find horrendous. Can we divorce these actions from the inspiration he promises to offer many graduates?
We share with some current seniors an ambivalence about Dempsey. We are, however, left with more questions than answers. Does Dempsey really exemplify knowledge in the service of society? What kind of courage and impact should a commencement speaker represent?
We agree that Dempsey meets the criteria for a good, conventional commencement speaker. But speakers that truly reflect our institutional values should offer more than a Duke connection and skillful oration. We would like to see commencement speakers that defy conventional success. These speakers would challenge the way we think about success and give us new models of courage and personal fulfillment.
We should also note that, Brodhead unilaterally chose a commencement speaker for the Class of 2014 and Class of 2013, even though Duke has a student selection committee tasked with suggesting possible speakers. Dempsey was not on the list of speakers the committee complied, and it is not clear what role the student selection committee serves. If the committee does not have a meaningful say in selecting a commencement speaker, the University should disband the committee and break the illusion of student input.