Stephen Colbert addresses Class of 2011 at NU’s 153rd Commencement

Elise De Los Santos

Northwestern’s class of 2011, University faculty and family and friends gathered at Ryan Field for the 153rd Commencement ceremony on June 17.

During the ceremony, University President Morton Schapiro conferred doctoral, graduate and undergraduate degrees to students from the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences, School of Communication, School of Continuing Studies, Bienen School of Music, Medill School of Journalism, School of Education and Social Policy, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Graduate School. The Kellogg School of Management, School of Law and Feinberg School of Medicine held separate ceremonies.

Schapiro also conferred an honorary doctoral degree in arts to commencement speaker Stephen Colbert, the political satirist best known for his show “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.

From the moment he walked into Ryan Field, Colbert elicited the biggest and loudest response from graduates and other attendees. During the processional, Colbert pretended to start to race Schapiro down the aisle, and when University Provost Dan Linzer “mispronounced” the name of his show, vocalizing the ‘t’ in “Report,” Colbert intensified the crowd’s reaction by throwing down his hat and pretending to storm off the stage.

When he took the stage to address the Class of 2011, Colbert, who graduated from NU’s School of Communication in 1986, used his personal experiences to relay his message to students.

“After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago and did improv. Now, there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is,” he said. “And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.”

In addition to entertaining his audience with anecdotes about his years at NU, Colbert also peppered his speech with references to recent University events, mentioning everything from the snow day to the ‘brothel law’ and sex toy demonstration controversies.

He called the cancellation of classes on Feb. 2 “weak,” saying that -27 degree weather did not stop classes when he was an undergraduate in 1985, and joked the Human Sexuality after-class demonstration could have been “a stealth abstinence program.”

But Colbert combined humor and serious advice as he brought his speech to a close.

“Try to love and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return,” he said. “In closing, I’d like to apologize for being predictable. The New York Times has analyzed the hundreds of commencement speeches given so far in 2011 and found that ‘love’ and ‘service’ were two of the most-used words. I can only hope that because of my speech today, the word ‘brothel’ comes in a close third.”

Colbert received a standing ovation from graduates and other attendees at the end of his speech.

“I thought he did a really good job poking fun at all the things about Northwestern this year,” SESP graduating senior Meredith Bundul said. “I also really liked the things he said at the end about loving and serving people. I thought he had a good mixture of humor but also was giving really heartfelt and helpful advice.”

For Angie Keaton, mother of Bienen graduating senior Chelsea Keaton, it was the mixture of solemnity and humor that made NU’s commencement unique.

“It was very beautifully done,” Angie Keaton said. “We’re honored to be part of the ceremony. It’s a special day, with so much lightheartedness to a serious event.”

Honorary doctoral degrees were conferred to three other individuals for their contributions to their fields, including Barbara Liskov in science for her work in data abstraction and computer programming, Jessye Norman in arts for her accomplishments as a vocal artist and William Schabas in laws for his work on international criminal law.

Schapiro also recognized four high school teachers who were nominated by graduates for the Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awards, 20 retiring NU professors with more than five centuries of service combined and William Banis, vice president of student affairs, who is retiring after 17 years at NU.

Elyssa Cherney contributed reporting.

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