*I wrote this post to near completion and had fully intended to have it published pre-Diddy commencement speech this past weekend. I don’t believe that it’s too late to post, as I think it’s still important to think about. It seems that Diddy’s speech was generally well-received, though also came with some mixed reviews. The point of this post was not to delve into the actual content (as it had not yet been delivered), but merely to call attention to different reactions towards Diddy as a “controversial” pick for a commencement speaker. It does seem that he was able to do what I generally thought he would be able to do – offer some general insights about things like “success”, “opportunity”, and “overcoming obstacles”, and talk about the power that the graduates had for the future (you know, those somewhat vague concepts that nearly every commencement speaker sets out to do).
This past weekend was a big one for college seniors all across the country as many schools hosted graduation ceremonies. Over the next few weekends many more will colleges and universities will follow suit and award degrees as well. First of all, congratulations to all of those who are receiving degrees and awards. It’s an exciting time filled with celebrations, family, friends, new jobs, and big changes.
There are all kinds of festivities and hub-bub surrounding graduation, not the least of which is who will be featured as commencement speaker. It means a lot for both the universities and the individuals chosen in terms of prestige and public image. We often hear who is the commencement speaker at the different Ivy’s or where Obama, Clinton, or Bill Gates are planning to speak. It has become a big deal, and a focal point of the ceremony.
This year, one story that stuck out to me as I was perusing the headlines just a couple of weeks ago was about someone chosen to be a commencement speaker, Puff Daddy / Puffy / P Diddy / Diddy / Sean Combs. Diddy is slated to speak at Howard University, an historically black university, for their May 10 ceremony. But this decision was apparently a controversial one that brought along headlines such as “Sean Combs, Howard dropout, to give commencement speech“. This has sparked a bit of back and forth over whether it is appropriate to have someone who did not finish his/her degree speak at a graduation ceremony. The word “dropout” has been tossed around when discussing Diddy, in some ways ignoring his impressive entrepreneurial achievements.
It’s certainly true that Diddy did not finish his degree at Howard University. He went for two years before leaving to pursue his career in the music industry. He has become a hugely significant and influential figure in that industry and many other entertainment venues (not to forget his clothing line and alcohol brand). He has the highest net worth of anyone in hip hop**, coming in somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 million in 2014 according to Forbes.
So while Diddy is, in fact, a “dropout”, it’s also the case that he has been extremely successful in many venues. I don’t disagree that it’s a legitimate conversation to have, or a real issue that universities should consider – do we want an individual who did not complete a degree*** to stand in front of our graduates and represent us as an institution (while we claim that a higher degree is the best route to success)? But, these kinds of conversations never happened when individuals like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs spoke at graduation ceremonies (also college dropouts – though much less often referred to as “dropouts”). There’s just something about Diddy and his line of work that perhaps makes people uncomfortable and causes him to be seen as a “controversial” selection.
An article in the Huffington Post, tried to add a bit of nuance to this matter (I think), but kind of ended up making my case for me. He tried to argue that having Diddy speak at a graduation ceremony at an historically black university is not the kind of message universities should be sending to a population who is already underrepresented in higher education and faces extra barriers in finding jobs. I agree with this sentiment, though again, it’s not a concern we have with other successful individuals. He also then went on to equate Diddy’s success with that of a drug lord: “Accountability matters in the assessment of “successful” careers. Otherwise, notorious DC druglord Rayful Edmond is equally suitable as a potential commencement speaker.” He also goes on to mention that Diddy made a great deal of his fortune through an industry which does have a checkered history, including degrading women and glorifying drug use**** in some instances.
I certainly won’t deny those charges or defend Diddy’s entire history and body of work one hundred percent. He’s not an automatic slam dunk, and people have obviously raised some questions about him as a speaker (thus, this post). I’m sure Howard thought long and hard about choosing him to represent them. But you can’t argue with his success, and it’s certain that he will have some interesting insights to share regarding success, entrepreneurial spirit, and taking advantage of opportunities, which is generally what people are looking for in a speaker. I’m thinking that he will do just that.
**Please note that I do NOT believe that being wealthy makes an individual qualified to be a commencement speaker. I mention his net worth as evidence showing his success and stature in the music industry. Being wealthy alone does not qualify someone; however, it does sometimes provide some legitimacy and often correlates with success in one’s field. Again, think of Gates, Jobs, former presidents, CEOs/heads of companies – all who have had immense success and made significant contributions, along the way accumulating a great deal of wealth and influence.
***An interesting statistic that I found (though I don’t know that I can verify it completely) is that approximately 20% of millionaires do not have a college degree. These individuals are the exception to the rule, as those with a college degree earn a great deal more than those without one, on average. So I don’t think that we should run around telling everyone that you’re better off without a degree, but I also think that those are the exact type of stories that are often sought after for commencement speakers – to single out Diddy’s selection while ignoring all of the others is problematic. Yes, it’s a tricky line toe.
****Note: Just to be clear, Steve Jobs was very outspoken about his own experimentation with many kinds of drugs and actually credits his experiences with drugs as a large part of what shaped him and led to his success. However, we never worry about Jobs as a “drug pusher” or an “addict” or really consider his long and expansive history with drug use as particularly problematic.