The 8 Greatest Gaffes in Commencement Speech History

For many students, graduating from college is a momentous event, and getting to hear a great commencement speaker is just part of what makes the whole experience so special. Yet, not all commencement speeches or choices of speakers have gone smoothly. Some speeches have been marred by errors and slip-ups, others by poor planning and some never even get off the ground due to student protests. Here, we’ve listed some of the biggest, most famous, and most ridiculous commencement speech gaffes in recent history for your reading enjoyment.

  1. Ann Curry

    Graduates of Wheaton College in Massachusetts were confused when Today Show anchor Ann Curry named evangelist Billy Graham, director Wes Craven, and 9/11 hero Todd Beamer as notable alumni of the school. These three are Wheaton alumni, but not of the Wheaton College in Massachusetts, all attending the school of the same name in Illinois. Curry later joked about the incident stating that, “you should never Google drunk” and that she was seriously mortified by the incident, having no idea there was another Wheaton College.

  2. Stephen Joel Trachtenburg

    Students at George Washington University didn’t have a problem with former university president Stephen Joel Trachtenburg on a personal or professional level; they just didn’t want him as a commencement speaker. Students felt that attention would be focused on Trachtenburg’s impending retirement and not on their accomplishments as graduates. Plus, most students had already heard the school’s president speak on a number of occasions. Trachtenburg stepped down as a result of student opposition, but the students were even more unhappy with their new commencement speaker: no one. Through incompetence or a desire not to offend anyone, the school never replaced Trachtenburg as a speaker, leaving the class of 2007 pretty irritated.

  3. Richard T. Jones

    Actor Richard T. Jones has had solid roles in films like Why Did I Get Married?, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, and Super 8, but when it comes to commencement addresses, the actor didn’t live up to student expectations. Many have called the commencement address he delivered to University of Maryland graduates in 2011 the worst commencement speech of all time. We’re not sure if it’s the worst, but it’s certainly close, mostly because Jones didn’t write a speech, choosing instead to improv one on-the-spot, which, as you can guess, didn’t work out so well. Tough luck, Maryland students.

  4. Manuel P. Pangilinan

    Can’t think of anything to say to new grads? No problem, just take bits and pieces of other people’s speeches and call them your own! That’s what businessman Manuel P. Pangilinan did at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2010. Pangilinan borrowed several parts of his speech from those of celebrities like J.K Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, and Conan O’Brien. When called out on his plagiarism, Pangilinan admitted great embarrassment and offered to retire from his position at the university.

  5. Looking for sex

    This high school commencement speaker made a classic Freudian slip when delivering his speech. Instead of saying that grads were “looking for success” he stated that they were “looking for sex” (which we’re sure both are true to some degree). The poor speaker was mortified by the mistake, but the audience seemed to find it pretty entertaining, as do we.

  6. James Franco

    Unfortunately for actor and eternal super-student James Franco, delivering a commencement address to UCLA just wasn’t in the cards. Franco never got the chance to slip on stage because he never made it there after students protested plans to have him speak at the College of Letters and Sciences Commencement Ceremony in 2009. Students complained that Franco was an average student at school and their academic peer, making him an inappropriate choice for speaker. Hundreds of other students agreed, and the school was forced to find a new commencement speaker.

  7. Sylvia Earle

    Most students expect a commencement address to have a positive message and to have something to do with graduation, the real world, or life after college. Unfortunately for students at Smith College, they got none of the above from undersea explorer Sylvia Earle. While Earle is a legend in her field, many students found it bizarre that she spent her speech talking about the destruction of the oceans, her career, and little else, only really referencing the class of 2011 when she mentioned what they could do to take care of the natural world and help the environment at the very end of the speech. While not a complete disaster, it likely wasn’t what most students had in mind.

  8. Joseph Anderson

    Pangilinan isn’t the only one who’s cribbed his commencement speech, however (sadly, there are dozens of examples). Joseph Anderson, principal at the Clinton School for Writers and Artists in Manhattan gave a graduation speech in 2011 that borrowed heavily from one given by famous author David Foster Wallace in 2005 to Kenyon College in Ohio. If you’re going to plagiarize a speech, you probably don’t want to take from one of the most famous graduation speeches of all time, as many in the audience will immediately know that your words are not your own.