1924 was a banner year for USC. The university held its first formal homecoming ceremony, inaugurated the first school of international relations in the country and, on a stifling Wednesday in June, gathered to hear its first female commencement speaker, Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, give her remarks.
It is doubtful that the woman once dubbed, with subdued enthusiasm, “as distinguished a Unitarian as there is in the land” was a barn-burning orator, but that’s beside the point.
USC, a school whose very first valedictorian was a woman, a school that currently has a nearly 1:1 ratio of female to male students, a school whose female athletes have secured 23 national championships, was making a promising first step toward acknowledging the contributions of its female students.
Unfortunately, nearly a century has passed and except for a few lateral moves, USC has stayed in the ’20s.
Last week, USC announced that the main speaker for its 128th commencement ceremony will be Microsoft C.E.O. Steve Ballmer, a man known for his clout, wealth and almost frightening ebullience at speaking events.
You can find examples of his oratory styles on Youtube: Two of the most popular videos, “Steve Ballmer going crazy” and “Dance Monkey Boy,” feature him bounding around the stage like a bulldog in moonboots, screaming, “I LOVE THIS COMPANY!”
But Ballmer’s enthusiasm is not on trial here.
Since California’s foremost Unitarian spoke in 1924, a mere five women have been keynote speakers at the main commencement ceremony.
Reinhardt’s successor was Nancy Banks, who spoke at the 1973 midyear commencement (USC discontinued midyear ceremonies in 1981).
In the next decade, there was a spurt of female speakers — 1976, 1980 and 1983.
Twenty years after that, and most recently, Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, spoke at the 2003 commencement ceremony at what she called — seemingly for lack of a better word — the most “exciting” university in California.
Since Simmons spoke, USC has grown beyond Simmons’ faint praise into a formidable university, in both academics and community.
It’s unfortunate, then, that despite the strides we have taken in rankings, prestige and diversity, our women’s lib is still not up to snuff.
It’s certainly not for lack of successful Women of Troy alumnae.
Even if confined to Ballmer’s wheelhouse, there are presidents of publishing houses, a former Goldman Sachs chairwoman and C.E.O.s of numerous companies.
Outside of business, there are movie producers, actresses, national news anchors.
America Ferrera, Lisa Ling, Macy Gray — Trojan alumnae everywhere. And brushing past school loyalties, the country can still be plumbed for a first lady, female secretary of state, Oscar-winning director, etc.
They’re out there, to be sure.
Although obtaining a proportionate number of female speakers would be a nice feather in the university’s cap, there are certainly reasons other than knee-jerk feminism to revisit the selection process next year.
A female speaker could add a fresh perspective that has been lacking in some recent speeches.
After all, fame doesn’t guarantee public speaking skills, or even the ability to properly use the word “juxtapose.”
Some of our most famous speakers have been duds.
Former Disney C.E.O. Michael Eisner spent most of his 2000 address promoting the proliferation of a new–fangled technology called “electronic mail.” In 1998, Bill Cosby rather humorously berated the valedictorian for being a show-off.
As for Ballmer, we’ll just have to wait and see, and pray he doesn’t jump into our grandmothers’ laps.
And so, President Nikias, trustees, faculty, staff, esteemed guests and, of course, the Class of 2011, we wait in hope that the university changes its selection criteria and next time picks a speaker that represents the diversity of this university.
Lucy Mueller is a senior majoring in cinema-television production. Her column, “Everything is Copy,” runs every other Thursday.