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Presidential hopefuls a hot ticket for graduation speeches

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Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is the 2007 commencement speaker at Wilberforce University in Ohio. (Hillary Clinton for President)

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Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is the 2007 commencement speaker at Southern New Hampshire University in New Hampshire. (Michael Millhollin)

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Sen. John Edwards, D.-N.C., is the 2007 commencement speaker at New England College in New Hampshire. (Michael Millhollin)

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Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y., is the 2007 commencement speaker at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. (Michael Millhollin)

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Mitt Romney, R-MA, is the 2007 commencement speaker at Regent University in Virginia. (Michael Millhollin)

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Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., is the 2007 commencement speaker at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York. (Michael Millhollin)

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Graduates of New England College march on graduation day 2006. Sen. John Edwards, D.-N.C., is the 2007 commencement speaker at New England College in New Hampshire. (Louis Foisy)

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A New England College graduate dons a cap with a personal touch on graduation day 2006. Sen. John Edwards, D.-N.C., is the 2007 commencement speaker at New England College in New Hampshire. (Louis Foisy)

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Cadet Zack Bryant tosses his hat on graduation day 2006 at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. The 2007 commencement speaker at The Citadel is Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y. (Russell K. Pace)

Barack Obama, this year’s commencement speaker at Southern New Hampshire University, will tell graduates to “get involved, get active and know that you can make a difference,” said Reid Cherlin, the New Hampshire press secretary for the Illinois senator's presidential campaign.

“The campaign is really about getting people involved that haven’t been involved before,” Cherlin added.

American colleges and universities often invite celebrity commencement speakers from the arts and sciences, but in recent years, political figures have become a hot ticket. In 2006, they made up nearly 30 percent of commencement speakers at the top 100 U.S. colleges ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

In the run-up to an election year, even small schools in politically important states like New Hampshire and Ohio are attracting high-profile candidates. And it's not just the candidates who are donning caps and gowns and imparting inspiring words; candidates' spouses are stepping up to the podium, too.

New Hampshire, the state that will host the nation’s first presidential primary next January, tops the list for Democrats. In addition to Obama, John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, plans to speak before Granite State graduates at New England College on May 12. Former Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush will speak at the University of New Hampshire on May 19, the same day Obama speaks at SNHU.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., meanwhile, will be speaking on May 5 at Wilberforce University, a small, historically black school in Ohio with about 1,050 students.

Ohio State University, with 7,000 graduates who draw a 50,000-person commencement crowd in a swing state, is a presidential candidate’s dream come true. Ohio State has not announced who will speak at its graduation, but the subject has become the topic of some speculation.

“There’s no way the school would have a politician this year so as not to look like they’re affiliated with anyone,” said Adam Ambro, a communications major at Ohio State who is about to turn 21. He recalled last year’s speech by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

“People were just there for their kids," Ambro said. “He was just a speaker. But some people were upset.”

While graduation speeches during a presidential election season have not been the topic of an organized study, said Michael C. Herron, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College who specializes in electoral politics, “it’s safe to say the candidates’ choices are strategic.”

This year, candidates’ spouses are also hitting the graduation circuit. Bill Clinton is scheduled to make no fewer than six commencement speeches this year--at the University of New Hampshire, Middlebury College, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Harvard Senior Day and the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, the Clinton Foundation says.

“He’s going to be a busy guy,” said Erica Mantz, a University of New Hampshire spokeswoman who explained that UNH invited former Presidents Bush and Clinton because they “wanted to look non-partisan” before an election year.

The Clintons aren't the only ones making it a family affair. Elizabeth Edwards will fan the home fires, speaking at Meredith College in North Carolina, while her husband travels to New Hampshire.

“He was the first one in his family to receive a college education, and we thought that his message about the value of education and his call to action would resonate with our graduates,” said Kathleen Williams, a spokeswoman for New England College, a school with around 1,000 students.

Many Republican presidential candidates are going south for graduation. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, is scheduled to appear at The Citadel, a state-supported military college in South Carolina, another key primary state. The school has asked Giuliani to speak about “principled leadership,” said Charlene Gunnells, a spokeswoman for the school. Last year, Citadel’s commencement speaker was Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In Virginia, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich plans to speak at Liberty University and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, will address nearly 900 graduates at Regent University on May 5; both universities are Christian schools. Some Regent students have complained about their school's choice of Romney, who is Mormon.

McCain, who will address the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York on June 18, spoke last year at Liberty University, Ohio State, The New School and Columbia University.

At Brigham Young University, a group of students and faculty are petitioning to get the university to retract its invitation to Vice President Dick Cheney because of his role in the war in Iraq.

President Bush is speaking at three schools this year, including Miami-Dade Community College in Florida and St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania. Members of the college community at Miami-Dade and St. Vincent are urging their administrations to cancel the speeches.

“I don’t think the president is high on the wish list,” said Carol Ries, Ohio State’s director of commencement and special events for more than 20 years. “At least not around here.”

Some administrators and students say they believe inviting political figures to give graduation speeches can cause problems.

Gigi Griffin, a sophomore at New England College majoring in politics and communications, says Edwards is “an OK candidate” but questions the college's practice of inviting presidential hopefuls.

“I think it depends on how the students feel about it," Griffin said. “If he’s OK with the general student population, then it’s OK."

“I would not like to have anyone who was trying to get their political ideas into a graduation speech,” she added. “I would like someone neutral.”

Some schools have remained neutral by imposing guidelines for commencement speakers. Dartmouth avoids problems by fishing from a pool of alumni and other notables, not people who are actively campaigning. The school hasn’t had a single presidential candidate speak at commencement from 1966 to 2007, the years for which it had records available, spokeswoman Genevieve Haas wrote in an e-mail message. This year, Dartmouth’s commencement speaker is Henry M. Paulson Jr., class of 1968 and the current U.S. Treasury secretary.

Some schools opted for celebrity commencement speakers, from Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey to TV actor Matthew Fox, who will speak before large crowds at New York University, Howard University and Columbia, respectively. But current and former political figures are speaking at graduations around the country.

It’s not an election year phenomenon, but a reflection of our times, said Paul LeBlanc, president of the University of Southern New Hampshire, where Obama will speak in May.

“Given the challenges that face this country, there is a hunger on the part of the people for inspired leadership, for someone who can lead us through this maze,” LeBlanc said. “And celebrities just don’t do that.”

E-mail: ac2635@columbia.edu