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Who’d Want to Give a Commencement Speech Anymore?

Tim Cook has delivered at least seven commencement addresses since becoming the chief executive of Apple. The superstar Taylor Swift, whose concerts have been credited with lifting local economies, addressed New York University’s graduation ceremony in 2022. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Dimon — they’ve all given graduation speeches more than once.

They’re obviously not doing it for the money (and typically there isn’t any). Instead, speakers have long seen graduation ceremonies as offering something increasingly rare: a stage where a large group of people gather to hear speakers impart wisdom, advice or whatever else they want to talk about.

The appeal of being a commencement speaker, however, seems to be waning.

Just three Fortune 50 chief executives appear to be commencement speakers this year, as colleges have faced campus protests over the war in Gaza, student arrests and wealthy alumni threatening to break ties with their alma maters over antisemitism.

“The idea of C.E.O.s going out aggressively and speaking anywhere near this environment on campuses, it just doesn’t seem like the moment for them to be doing that,” said David Murray, the executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association.

C.E.O.s are tired of talking. At a recent meeting of executive speechwriters, Murray said one takeaway stood out. As one presenter put it, Less is more, in ’24.”

Murray highlighted the sentiment in the Professional Speechwriters Association’s May newsletter: “Folks will increasingly keep their leaders out of the spotlight,” he wrote, describing the current moment as one in which “even formerly anodyne messages encouraging employees to vote” sound partisan to some.

That approach marks a drastic evolution from when executives made statements in droves after the death of a Black man, George Floyd, in police custody in 2020. “They didn’t get rewarded for it,” Murray said. “They got called woke. One group said they didn’t go far enough, one group said they went too far, and now they’re definitely in a phase of, ‘We comment on things that absolutely have essential bearing on our company and our business.’”

Campuses reflect an era of division. Before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, the war in Gaza and the campus protests that followed, the City University of New York School of Law announced that it would have no commencement speaker. The school had faced a backlash when speakers at previous commencements focused on their support for Palestinians. After protests on campus related to the war, and the ensuing controversy over how school administrations handled them, Columbia University announced that it would cancel its main commencement ceremony altogether. And across the country, as many ceremonies carried on without disruption, several have been interrupted by protests and walkouts, sometimes targeted at the school’s choice of speaker.

Michael Franklin, the executive director of the industry association Speechwriters of Color, said speechwriters are increasingly preparing for disruption. “A new part of the package this year, in addition to the remarks that they would deliver, is also having some alternative transition remarks in the event of a disruption,” he said.

Some executives prefer chats to speeches. The chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, accepted an honorary Ph.D. at Georgia Tech this year, but did not give a commencement speech. Instead, at a special ceremony in January, he delivered a five-minute speech, left the stage to remove his graduation robes, and returned for a “fireside chat” with the school’s president, Ángel Cabrera.

“They love fireside chats,” Murray said of executives. “They want to sit down, have a chummy conversation, look charming, be charming. Say short things, kind of stick to their key messages.”

Kate Linkous, an executive vice president in Edelman’s corporate reputation practice, said she’s also noticed more conferences replacing their keynote speeches with fireside chats. “The commencement speech is one of our last few brilliant examples of a long-form speech,” she said.

Will the commencement address as we know it survive? One potential outcome is that the address just becomes boring, as speakers focus on avoiding controversy. “Whenever you’re in a position of trying to sand something down, you end up appealing to no one and saying nothing,” said Ben Krauss, a former speechwriter for Joe Biden and other politicians and the chief executive of the speech writing and strategic communications firm Fenway Strategies. His advice?

“People have been protesting commencements for as long as there have been commencements,” he said. “If someone interrupts, someone interrupts. That’s just kind of a natural feature of human communication.” — Sarah Kessler

The N.C.A.A. signed a potentially historic settlement. The college sports association and several top conferences agreed to a $2.8 billion pact that would pay student athletes for playing. If approved by a federal judge, the plan would be the biggest step yet in erasing the idea that college stars are amateurs — but skeptics worry the plan doesn’t resolve a number of major issues.

Nikki Haley opened the door for her donors to back Donald Trump. The former Republican presidential hopeful said she would vote for her onetime rival in November, seemingly making peace with a man she had castigated during the Republican primary. That could give cover to deep-pocketed benefactors like the hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin to give money to Trump, whose campaign fund-raising has trailed President Biden’s. Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone chief, said this week that he would back Trump.

Scarlett Johansson took on OpenAI. The actress, who played an A.I. assistant in the movie “Her,” accused the tech start-up of using a sound-alike voice for the latest version of its ChatGPT chatbot — after she turned the company down. The dispute reflected eroding trust in OpenAI and its chief, Sam Altman; Hollywood’s conflicted relationship with A.I.; and Silicon Valley’s continued tolerance of start-ups asking for forgiveness instead of permission.

The Justice Department sued Live Nation over its dominance of live entertainment. The antitrust suit accused the Ticketmaster parent of maintaining an illegal monopoly by locking venues and artists into exclusive contracts and threatening retribution to rivals. It’s the latest instance of the Biden administration’s crackdown on what it sees as unfair competition, and comes despite Live Nation’s endorsement of some aspects of the White House’s fight against so-called “junk fees.”

The F.D.I.C.’s chair said he planned to resign. Martin Gruenberg agreed to step down after losing Democratic support over what reports said was a toxic culture at the banking regulator. Republicans said that Gruenberg, who said he’ll leave when a replacement is in place, should go immediately, as Democrats seek to preserve their majority at an agency tasked with drafting tough new banking regulations.

Red Lobster made news this week when it blamed its all-you-can-eat shrimp deal for helping tip the company into bankruptcy. The claim was part of what’s known as a first-day declaration, a legal filing that companies in bankruptcy make to explain why they ran into trouble.

These declarations are written carefully and strategically. A company “usually wants to present itself as the honest but unfortunate debtor,” Adam Levitin, a bankruptcy professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told DealBook. “It’s in bankruptcy for reasons that were not about bad management, but about just things out of its control in the world.”

That’s why so many companies that file for Chapter 11 protection cite macroeconomic trends or quirky exogenous factors, despite other issues being more culpable. In Red Lobster’s case, the company was dealing with expensive leases and the same challenges facing other casual dining companies.

The unlimited shrimp promotion — the brainchild of Red Lobster’s former chief, reportedly in conjunction with Thai Union, the chain’s parent — is unlikely to have been a primary cause for the filing. “The dollar value is not big enough, and it’s a little too indirect,” Vincent Buccola, a bankruptcy professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told DealBook. (His guess: Red Lobster’s current management may be trying to imply the threat of future litigation against Thai Union. Thai Union, for its part, has denied the accusation.)

But it got DealBook thinking: What other unexpected factors have companies blamed for their bankruptcies?

Low-carb diets: The parent company of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, Interstate Bakeries, filed for bankruptcy in 2004, citing low-carb eating as a cause as the Atkins diet became all the rage. That said, the company also carried about $1.3 billion in debt, and had been criticized by analysts for a lack of innovation and high labor costs. The company filed for bankruptcy again in 2012.

Twinkies ultimately had a happy ending: The investment firm Apollo Global Management and the financier Dean Metropoulos acquired the Hostess brand name and took that business through one of the most successful corporate transformations in recent memory. After going public in 2016, Hostess was sold to J.M. Smucker for $5.6 billion last year.

A helium shortage: Party City filed for bankruptcy in January 2023, blaming in part a global helium shortage driven by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But the retailer carried about $1.7 billion in debt and was still reeling from the pandemic, which had disrupted supply chains and put a damper on festive gatherings. (Its founder also blamed the store’s high prices).

Party City emerged from bankruptcy in October after eliminating about $1 billion in debt and closing less profitable stores.

People fleeing Manhattan: When the luxury home goods retailer ABC Carpet & Home filed for bankruptcy in 2021, among the factors it cited was the “mass exodus of current and prospective customers leaving the city” during the pandemic. But the company had also been fighting with its landlord and fallen behind on its digital presence, which became a problem once the pandemic hit.

The retailer, which still operates its multicolor Manhattan store, later emerged from bankruptcy and was sold to an investment firm.


Tesla this week pressed its case to investors that they should again approve Elon Musk’s $56 billion pay package at the electric auto maker’s annual meeting next month. The company said the compensation plan, which a judge struck down in January, did what it was supposed to do: motivate Musk to lead the company to significant growth. That included Tesla’s total shareholder return, which vastly outstripped those of other tech giants — the so-called Magnificent 7 — from March 2018, when shareholders first approved Musk’s pay deal, to the end of 2023.

“A deal should be a deal: Stockholders approved the plan. Elon hit the targets. We should hold up our end of the deal,” the company wrote in its presentation.

It’s worth noting that Tesla this year is the worst performing Magnificent 7 stock, down roughly 28 percent as of Friday’s market close.

Thanks for reading! We’ll see you Monday.

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