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College of Charleston starts new tradition of alumni-only graduation speakers | News

Spring commencement at the College of Charleston is steeped in tradition.

Women wear white dresses and carry long-stemmed red roses. Men don white dinner jackets and pin red rose boutonnieres to their lapels. The ceremony takes place in scenic Cistern Yard, a verdant quad in the center of campus enveloped by live oaks teeming with Spanish moss. Graduates cross the stage at historic Randolph Hall and exit through the arch at Porter’s Lodge. 

Starting in May, a new tradition will begin: Only C of C alumni will be invited to speak at graduation.

“We have so many incredibly bright and talented alumni who have accomplished so much in their lives and careers,” President Glenn McConnell said at a Board of Trustees meeting Friday.

“I believe it’s fitting for them to come back to their alma mater to tell the story to our graduates about how the college shaped their lives and inspire our graduates to reach for the stars when they part through our gates,” he added.

The college joins a slew of institutions limiting which speakers are invited to a graduation, often citing cost or controversy.

Last year, the University of South Carolina instituted a new policy in which only President Harris Pastides will speak at commencement, due to the difficulty of scheduling “three quality speakers in May,” according to the Columbia Free Times.

In the past, the state’s flagship university had booked a number of high-profile and potentially polarizing politicians as graduation speakers, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and then-S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley. 

Protests over commencement speakers have embroiled campuses elsewhere, including the University of Notre Dame which invited both Biden and former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner to commencement last year. In 2014, Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state under President George W. Bush, was forced to withdraw as speaker at Rutgers University, facing pressure from students and faculty who opposed her role in the Iraq War. 

The College of Charleston does not pay commencement speakers fees or honorariums, according to spokesman Mike Robertson, and usually chooses speakers who live locally or within the state. If speakers do require room and board, the college will house them in the campus’ guest cottages. Occasionally, the college will pay for airfare if necessary, Robertson said.  

McConnell said he hopes students will find inspiration in speakers who have walked “the same walk” across Cistern Yard. 

“Just think about it,” McConnell added. “I think this will be a great, inspiring message.”

The college hosts three spring commencement ceremonies between May 12 and May 13. 

Dr. Sam Stafford III, a Mount Pleasant dermatologist and graduate of the class of 1968, will speak at the May 12 ceremony. From the class of 1979, Elizabeth…

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