Barry Saunders

Duke grads, focus on Paul Farmer’s actions instead of his speech

So, apparently some members of the Duke University Class of 2015 were not sufficiently entertained by Sunday’s commencement ceremony speaker.

Boo freakin’ hoo.

A News & Observer story Monday on Paul Farmer’s speech noted that some students expressed dissatisfaction and dismay with Farmer’s pearls. Tweets from some students and alumni show they thought the speech – like the weather – was soggy. Others dubbed it insensitive, self-centered or just too darned long.

The portion of the speech I watched on the Internet confirmed one thing: nobody’s going to confuse Dr. Farmer with Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart or Bill Clinton.

That’s good. If nothing else, Farmer should be applauded for hipping the students to an important life lesson even before they disrobed – that life isn’t always entertaining, that sometimes there’s drudgery and boredom and sitting listening to things you don’t want to hear but need to.

In other words, It ain’t always about you, boo.

Farmer’s experience

Farmer graduated from Duke with a bachelor’s degree in medical anthropology in 1982. The next year, instead of joining Toastmasters to practice being glib, he began helping dispossessed farmers in Haiti and working toward his Ph.D. and medical degree at Harvard University.

He has spent his professional life dealing with health and human rights for the poor, and has written about the role of social inequalities in infectious disease rates and treatments. He has traveled the world working with the poorest people in need of health care, preferring to be a humanitarian rather than a humorist.

Nothing Farmer could have said from the dais could have spoken more eloquently than his life speaks.

I asked five college graduates from the 1980s and ’90s to name the speaker at their commencement ceremonies: not one could. Farmer remembered, “but barely,” he admitted.

The only reason I remember who spoke at my college class’s graduation – not that I was graduated with it – is because guards with automatic weapons were on the roofs of surrounding buildings. That kind of thing crystallizes the mind, as does hearing Joshua Nkomo, a freedom fighter in Zimbabwe, promise during that speech that “Zimbabwe will be free this year.”

He was off by four months.


Farmer said he knew a portion of his speech would be “controversial.”

“These young people are commencing into a world with a lot of social problems, and I knew there was no way I was not going to talk about Baltimore or Ferguson,” he said. “Most of the young people there, like I was when I was there, have been spared most of these problems, whereas most young people throughout the world have so few opportunities.”

There are two types of people of whom we should all be suspicious: baldheaded barbers and speakers who are too glib and facile.

This may come as an ego-dampener to some, but it’s unlikely that many students at graduation are paying a whole lot of attention to what’s being said. While speakers are going on and on about protecting the environment and being kind to little children, here are the things soon-to-be-graduates are thinking:

▪ Nah, I don’t think I will go boldly into the future: you go and let me know what it’s like.

▪ Does this mean dad’s going to stop with the checks?

▪ Is there a military draft? There’s no draft. I can’t be drafted, can I?

▪ Ha ha. Look at me. I’m graduating from Duke and I still don’t know what a Pythagorean theorem is.

▪ Did I give my bookie, Bonecrusher, my new address? I hope not.

▪ Journalism? What the hell was I thinking, majoring in journalism? Boy, I hope mom was kidding when she said she’d rented out my room.

▪ Hmm, do I have on pants under this gown?

And so, in closing, class of 2015, I’d like to send you forth with the most important words you’ll ever hear: If at first you don’t succeed, find out if the loser gets anything.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or