This past weekend was Commencement Weekend at the Claremont Colleges. There were seven graduations, and I went to three of them to hear the speakers. This is easier to do now that they are spread out over Saturday and Sunday instead of all on Sunday afternoon, as they were until about five years ago. Also, I leave right after the speaker is done, before the reading of all those names, as rude as this may be. Here are a few brief observations from this year’s venture.
Pitzer College, where the graduates wear white robes with bright orange sashes, was, as always, pretty out there – or even more out there. In a new twist, the graduates entered accompanied by a raucous marching band that featured men on very high stilts and at least one sporting a mohawk. Quite a Saturday morning wake-up! In the tradition of student-chosen speakers who are provocative if not flat-out controversial, a la Angela Davis a few years ago, the speaker was Janet Mock, the outspoken trans-woman author, television host and activist. Her speech was a bit canned, but commencement addresses are so tricky with all those folks just itching to get out, and she did encourage the grads to be their true, perhaps challenging selves.
The Saturday afternoon commencement at Claremont McKenna College couldn’t have been more different, starting off with a prayer and the singing of the alma mater. There was also, as always, a Latin salutation, given by a co-ed pair of students, although it was presented with much humor and sense of fun. The speaker, who received an honorary degree, was Azar Nafisi, the Iranian author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. She had lots of interesting insights – perhaps too many. There was the sense that the officials were not happy with how long she went on and that the proverbial hook was waiting in the wings. Did she perhaps drink a bit too much at lunch? (I was reminded of when Paul Conrad, the late, very liberal Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist, spoke at this conservative, formerly men’s college’s commencement years ago, and there was considerable grumbling. Then again, Ken Kesey was the speaker a few years later.)
Then there was Pomona College graduation on Sunday morning. Pomona is the oldest college in Claremont and arguably the most prestigious, and it’s not shy about it (there are t-shirts that say “Harvard: the other Pomona”). There were four speakers, in addition to the student speakers, and all got honorary degrees, including the “keynote speaker,” France Cordova, the head of the National Science Foundation. Plus he excellent Glee Club performed two songs. This all took more than an hour and a half, before the parade of several hundred graduates, one at a time, across the stage.
But it still made for quite a uniquely pleasant Sunday morning, especially with the clouds burning off, as was the case this year. Unlike the other ceremonies, held under giant tents, Pomona’s is held under great, old sycamore trees in a picaresque quadrangle, and there were people sitting and laying on the lawn. And, in a super-nice touch, free coffee was available. Like I said, quite a pleasant Sunday morning.