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Shonda Rhimes ‘91: “Don’t Be an Asshole”

One of the aspects of modern-day Dartmouth to which I have had trouble adapting is the tendency of students to make no distinction between the kind of language employed in casual interactions and the more formal address that used to be required in class. I guess the next step in that evolution would be Shonda Rhimes ‘91’s Commencement speech (starting at 1:41:20), one that was both long on wisdom about careers, work-life balance and being “a doer not a dreamer,” and also replete with words and phrases that back in the day would have been considered embarrassingly out-of-place vulgarity:


Amazingly, Rhimes was reading from a Teleprompter, so one imagines that she carefully drafted her remarks in advance:


She employed the words “ass” or “asshole” three times, and she seems to have a particular affection for “suck” in its various manifestations. She used the word on five occasions:


Rhimes rounded off her speech by describing how she had been hung over during her own Commencement in 1991:



She expressed the hope that the students in the audience were hung over, too.

The graduating seniors responded to Rhimes with polite applause, but they did not accord her a spontaneous standing ovation:


The students finally left their seats about 25 seconds after Rhimes finished speaking; they did so when prompted by the belatedly rising administrators and Trustees on the podium.

Poor Dartmouth.

Addendum: The jury is out on how the press will report Rhimes’ speech: heartfelt observations from a successful artist or the first-in-the-nation repeated use of profanity in a Commencement oration?

Addendum: An alumnus from a recent class adds a set of thoughts about Rhimes’ speech:

I write to provide a slightly different perspective on Shonda Rhimes’ Commencement Address from someone who saw the speech in person. My sister is a graduate of the class of 2014 and while there obviously was a delayed standing ovation, each of my sister’s friends was effusive in their praise of the speech.

I agree the language was certainly coarse at best, but it appears this speech struck a chord with the students (and I dare say young alums as well). The admission of her graduation day hangover was surely pandering to the graduating students as they coped with a brutally hot day on the Green and what was certainly their own hangovers after enjoying the last night they will ever be Dartmouth students. While it might not have been particularly parent-friendly, if she can state the obvious and make a connection with the class she’s addressing, good for her.

However, the place in Ms. Rhimes’ speech I’d hope to focus is her anecdote about moving out of North Mass, lying on the ground, crying, and refusing to leave. She stated that the day after Dartmouth was the worst day of her life (which she later qualified with her “don’t be an asshole” device) and as an alum, I’d agree wholeheartedly. I just felt that this sentiment will resonate most with the students (once tomorrow hits them), and it’s great for them to realize that they are not alone in feeling that way. In fact, I’d say that this is finally someone who has stated what has been the opinion of the vast, silent majority of Dartmouth students and alums who love the school more than anything despite its warts.

With all of the negative news the college has been receiving, wouldn’t it be great if the gist of articles coming from this focused on how the vast majority of alums, Shonda Rhimes included, absolutely love this little college in Hanover, and found the mere thought of leaving the place overwhelming? That’s a school I’d want to send my kids to.

Addendum: A man of the cloth writes in, too:

I just got off the phone with a friend who had been a member of a Catholic parish to which I was assigned years ago. Her twin grandsons graduated from Dartmouth this weekend. She and the whole family enjoyed a wonderful few days up in Hanover for the graduation festivities, but she couldn’t get over how vulgar was the language of the Commencement speaker. My friend, and the parents of the young graduates, decided to walk out. All the disturbing points you singled out were exactly my friend’s most troubling memories of the talk.

Thanks for supplying the basics of the speech online, so that I could check out what she was lamenting. Without disparaging all those in her job category, I think that dipping into the entertainment industry’s movers and shakers for Commencement speakers is more and more going to get risky, if we’re looking for graceful speech coupled with advice about being noble, selfless, etc.

Addendum: A Hanover-based observer adds a note:

What do you expect in today’s culture, when the most academically elite institutions pride themselves in featuring Hollywood entertainers and that skewed, self-reinforcing world’s “brain trusts” to commemorate their most hallowed event of the year?

Think of what Shonda Rhimes has invested her excellent education, considerable creative abilities and 23-year career promoting. I am surprised you find her low-brow sensibilities startling or even unsettling.

Your expectation of elevating discourse and commendable personas at graduations is heartening, and one I share. But this race-to-the-bottom in academic occasions reflects the debasing of our culture and its flagship institutions, with Dartmouth graduates like Shonda Rhimes leading the way and implicitly beckoning these newly minted graduates to follow.

One thing does strike me about today: Dartmouth rarely invites one of its alumni to return for the honor of giving a commencement address. And when they finally do, this is the best they can come up with. Thousands of alumni are doing far more significant work and providing a potentially more inspiring example to follow. But edgy ephemera conquers all.

On the other hand, Dartmouth may be using the commencement address invitation to set up Shonda Rhimes to give a major gift to the College, or to join the Board of Trustees.

Addendum: Another point of view:

Here is another reaction. I came thrilled for my son, excited by the privilege of being present, but wondering about being offended by the Commencement address. Generally, the proceedings were even better than expected. Run well, dignified, fun, and they conveyed the joy of earning a Dartmouth degree. Was the Commencement speech a little political? Yes, but balanced by some good insights (even if obvious tidbits). Was it coarse? Of course. But, who did not expect an effort to shock? My reaction: a smart woman gave her message and was inconsiderate to the presence of many that she knew would find her language offensive or inappropriate in context. Not the biggest deal, but unfortunate.

Phil Hanlon’s speech exceeded expectations. He may not be a great orator but he hit the points: a great college, a fantastic venue, and an extraordinary student body that has been challenged and readied to contribute and lead.

To me, there is one large question remaining and I hope a reasonable answer about which I am ignorant. Why was the National Anthem omitted from the proceedings? That seems very wrong.

Addendum: A faculty member writes in:

In response to the critics who have written in, let me say that as a teacher of this generation of students, I think Shondra Rhimes spoke their language. Expressions that even five years ago were regarded as obscene have moved into common discourse. “Freakin,” “sucks,” and, yes, even “asshole” have become the equivalent of an earlier generation’s “flipping,” “stinks” and “jerk.”

Language changes and times change. Ms. Rhimes seemed to connect with her audience. Her comments about the challenges of being the mother of three girls and a busy professional spoke to every young woman—and young man—in the audience.

On balance, her speech was one of the better ones in recent Dartmouth history (though no one has surpassed Conan O’Brien—who happens to be another Hollywood personality).


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