Commencement needs a female presence

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.

Rita Yeung | Daily Trojan

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.

8 replies
  1. Just a thought
    Just a thought says:

    Why can’t we promote a speaker who is a white, christian, man…is there a problem with that? Where is the tolerance?

  2. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I’m a woman and woman are irritating with harping on men all of the time. If it wasn’t for them this planet would be nothing……Women need to shut up and stop trying to be like men all of the time. CREATE your own without picking on what men do or don’t do…

  3. uscalum
    uscalum says:

    Great research and point well made. USC should care enough about promoting egalitariannism in all aspects of it’s university business

  4. sotrue
    sotrue says:

    this is so true. usc needs a woman presence at commencement. one would hope that with a woman provost that things will start to change around her, especially because our new provost is a vibrant and outspoken leader for women’s rights and participates in gender studies and cfr events. however, year after year, man after man, we get the same looking speaker saying the same type of message. a woman would definitely be a nice change of pace. i would encourage us all to not this read this article and forget about this important message. instead demand more diversity for our commencement speaker. maybe this can be an issue the program board assemblies can work on. just a thought. we’ll let’s see who we get next year. maybe an out lesbian?! Ellen? naw, USC’s not ready for that one yet. baby steps

  5. Kristan
    Kristan says:

    Congrats on a well-written article, and I totally agree. USC, how do you pick these speakers? Is there even a channel for any student input that any of us even know about? :(

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