Commencement, Law School Deans, Law Schools, Legal Ethics, Screw-Ups

Commencement Speechmaking 101

Is it really that hard to make a commencement speech? I wrote one in high school. It was basically about seizing the day. My friend made one in college. Same theme, only in Latin. You can also make commencement speeches about giving back to your community, the importance of education, or how your generation is the most awesome generation ever to be generated. It’s not hard, people.

And yet people consistently screw it up. Today we have two different ways that people can screw up a commencement speech — one example from an old person, one example from a young person. One example from a very good law school, one example from a school that isn’t ranked that highly.

Apparently, anybody can screw up a commencement address if they try hard enough….

Let’s start at (or near) the top. One of our tipsters took issue with the commencement address given at Columbia Law School by Dean David Schizer. Says our source:

Dean Schizer started out just fine: economic conditions had changed from when we applied to school, but we should suck it up. After all, the Columbia class of 1861 got sucked into the Civil War, and you didn’t hear them whining. So far, no objection– we could in fact do with a little less carping. As the students see it, a bunch of capos at Goldman nearly brought down the world economy, and we can no longer pillage alongside them for $160k a year. We may as well pull ourselves together and find something else to do with our talents.

Then the dean started carping. On the financial crisis itself, he said it was brought on because “people bought houses they couldn’t afford.” Not a word about predatory lending, tranches to dissipate responsibility, questionable legal advice provided to investment banks. You began to wonder if he would say that the problem with law students is that they take on debt that can’t be paid back on a $35,000 a year salary.

The tipster then describes some statements from Dean Schizer that struck the tipster as more like the political statements you’d get from a keynote speaker, as opposed to the “yay education” stuff you’d expect from a faculty member:

He then launched into full-on tea party mode, providing the following laughable metaphor on taxation:

“If I took a cupcake from a three-year-old and gobbled it up, you would think I was a bad man. And you’d be right. Such behavior is no more legitimate because it is sanctioned by our democratic institutions.”

Where to begin — I have a three-year-old, and I have no problem taking a cupcake from him: cupcakes are bad for him, and the only way he would ever get one to begin with is that I gave it to him.

But let’s forget about the actual story, and focus on the metaphor. The lesson, it seems, is that the government confiscates property from people merely to “gobble it up” (taking the cupcake to pay for medicare or the defense department was not discussed). All taxation is simply theft, which gets in the way of life’s most important goal—amassing personal wealth, in the form of cupcakes. Even Gordon Gekko doesn’t believe this any more.

UPDATE (11:20 AM): Some commenters have come to Dean Schizer’s defense, arguing that the tipster has overstated the political content of his speech. You can read the dean’s remarks here and judge for yourself.

Look — I tend to give deans and other faculty a bit of a pass on these things. They’ve been to lots of commencements. They’ve heard or been forced to say the same thing over and over again. Sure, you should probably have the intellectual discipline to simply repackage the same expected platitudes year after year — remember, it’s new to the new graduating class. But I’m not going to rip the dean for going off on a political tangent and telling his students to stop whining. Remember Captain Commander Adama, when he had to give a speech when they decommissioned the Galactica? Sometimes you have to say what’s in your heart.

Just make sure it is what’s in your heart, not somebody else’s heart that you’ve appropriated without credit. A student commencement speaker at North Carolina Central University Law School didn’t follow that rule, according to the News Observer:

A law student who graduated from N.C. Central University last week is in hot water after plagiarizing a speech in front of thousands of people at commencement.

Preston Mitchum, 25, of Youngstown, Ohio, apologized Monday for his conduct, which has triggered a review by NCCU officials.

In an interview, Mitchum said he was under pressure to come up with a speech and found a YouTube video of a speech made last year by Anthony Corvino, a student at Binghamton University in New York.

Mitchum copied the speech, delivering parts of it word for word at Friday’s ceremony for graduate and professional students at NCCU. In an interview Monday, he said he meant to credit Corvino in the speech, but didn’t.

“I feel terrible, and I know this is going to have a horrific backlash,” he said.

Yeah Preston, it’s not the best. But at least the guy you stole parts of your speech from has come to your defense:

Corvino, the Binghamton student who wrote the original speech, called The News & Observer on Monday to vouch for Mitchum. Corvino said Mitchum ran the speech by him via Facebook before NCCU’s graduation, and Corvino OK’d it.

“I feel awful for the kid because he seems really sincere,” Corvino said. “He apologized to me and everything. I think it was just like a big accident he made.”

I think everybody can understand a student’s reaction to the pressure of a public address, but half of being a lawyer is being able to perform under pressure (the other half involves being very organized with your paperwork, in case you were wondering). The thing that hurts Mitchum isn’t that he ran to YouTube to fill in gaps for a speech he was writing, it’s that when he was put under pressure he resorted to some ethically questionable tactics.

That’s not the best.

So remember people, when giving a commencement speech, just stick to the well-worn paths. Commencement speakers are like umpires, people only notice them if they royally screw up.

Commencement speech wasn’t NCCU student’s own [News Observer]

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