I would like to see the people who don’t want Katie Harman for commencement speaker to reconsider. Miss America Harman represents an excellent choice, for reasons her critics don’t seem perceptive enough to appreciate. I see the opposition of some as little more than bids for media attention.
Some of the complaints may come from people who disdain the whole Miss America apparatus, but I don’t see that as relevant to Harman or Portland State. Not that I am a great fan of the Miss America contest, or any other such contest. I lost all interest in the Miss America organization when they bounced Vanessa Williams because of some nude photos of her from an earlier stage in her career.
I applaud the attitude of Aimee Shattuck, co-coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center. She told the Vanguard she does not agree with having Harman speak, but her organization is not involved with protesting or boycotting the commencement. She saw the Miss America issue as one of less importance than others the WRC is working on.
In complaining about Harman, it seems to me protesters are doing an about face in the traditional student attitude about commencement speakers. Graduates for generations have complained about the sameness of commencement talks. Grumbles follow a consistent pattern. Students gripe that the typical speaker tends to be some gray-haired fogy who has nothing in common with their generation. He or she stands there dispensing advice that doesn’t communicate to young people. The discourse rolls on in language that doesn’t sound familiar or relevant. When the speech ends, everybody sighs with relief.
Now, suddenly, detractors are reversing their timeworn criticism. They are complaining that Harman is not experienced enough. This presents a narrow view. Certainly, Harman cuts no battle-worn authority figure. She has some advantages over the old traditional speaker. She is of the generation of her audience. She speaks their language, thinks in their patterns, sees life as they do, as an unfolding experience, not a race already run. Harman will be communicating to peers. She won’t be speaking like some cautioning parent figure or worn down survivor of past conflicts.
Harman will also bring something additional to the lectern that her audience does not have. True, she will be younger than many seated before her, and certainly some of her audience will have held full-time jobs and have been practicing professionals. Yet, she has had a type of experience none of them has had and most never will have. She has been called upon to perform in the main tent.
Harman can draw on the experience of surviving numerous public and television appearances, facing large crowds, dealing with potentially tense situations. Beyond that, she has already learned first hand how roughly the major league world can hassle you. She has collided with the suits. She has seen how the power brokers operate and how a young person needs to deal with them.
Harman has had the experience of having her parents stir up a storm that brought the machinery of power down on her. She knows what it’s like to be summoned to a hostile press conference, to face a battery of hard-bitten reporters and television interviewers. She has had to confront the tough, accusatory probes that few people her age ever face.
True, Harman is only a junior in college, not yet herself a graduate. Yet, she already has acquitted herself well through tough obstacles that at least 80 percent of her audience will never confront. One of her hardest tests was how to function as a congenial public figure in a world suddenly plunged into the grim disaster of Sept. 11.
The graduates of June 2002 have lessons to learn from Katie Harman. I suggest they abandon any meanness of spirit, any complaints that she does not yet hold her own diploma. I recommend they go to commencement with the expectation that Harman will deliver a perspective they will find inspirational and profitable.