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Tuesday, May 28, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Leo

Commencement Speaker Had A Frog In His Throat

KERMIT the Frog won an honorary degree from Southampton College the other day, a "doctorate of amphibious letters." Apparently the first nonmammal to earn a degree on Long Island, Kermit was nice enough to deliver the keynote address, most of it in his familiar rat-a-tat comedic style. ("Don't let my spindly arms fool you. I can slam-dunk one mean basketball.") Not to give away any trade secrets, but Muppeteer Steve Whitmire was scrunched down inside a specially constructed podium, while a miniversion of the college's academic robe was draped over his green and froggy hand.

A hundred or more students threatened to turn their back on the "Sesame Street" star to show their displeasure with the college's publicity stunt. It isn't easy being green. At the last minute, the rebellion faded, though a fair amount of muttering occurred. After five years of hard work, said Samantha Chie, a marine biology major, "now we have a sock talking at our commencement. It's kind of upsetting."

Over at Montclair State, honorary degrees went to Bruce Willis and Yogi Berra. Showing a grasp of popular culture, Montclair State president Irvin Reid said school loyalties "die hard" for Willis, whose life reads like "pulp fiction." (We get it.) Berra, who never went to college or high school, once again cast himself in his familiar role of Mr. Dim. Festooned in cap and gown, he read a series of Yogi-isms, all originally concocted and polished to make him seem as stupid as possible. Among those he read were: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," and a mangled version of his well-known one-liner, "Nobody goes to that restaurant any more; it's too crowded."

That's entertainment. Welcome to the modern commencement ceremony, where colleges strive to close any remaining gap between education and entertainment by spraying out honorary degrees to anyone recognizable.

Among those who won degrees this year are Arnold Schwarzenegger (University of Wisconsin at Superior), Donald O'Connor (Chapman University) and Bill Cosby. Cosby, who earned a Ph.D. in education, also has a number of honorary degrees and added at least three this spring. Comedians usually do very well. In past years, honorees included Jerry Seinfeld (Queens College), Chevy Chase (Bard), Dan Akroyd (Carleton), Da Fonz (Henry Winkler, Emerson) and Jackie Mason, who received a degree from Oxford. Go figure.

Anyone attending a graduation these days must prepare for the perplexing sight of academic robes being placed on the shoulders of who-is-he-again? minor characters from sitcoms and other TV shows. This is indeed a strange phenomenon, but there is a reason. Many students are delighted to see their TV friends right there on campus. Many administrations are delighted because any kind of celebrity will create buzz. If the big stars can't be bothered, or if they demand huge appearance fees to come get a degree, it's smart to go with lesser lights.

The granting of honorary degrees is an odd business at best. It's supposed to be done to recognize intellectual excellence, but variety is important on an honors list. Does it matter much that Barbra Streisand is now Dr. Streisand, thanks to Brandeis University, or that Captain Kangaroo (riding the nostalgia boom) is one of our leading collectors of such degrees, with 18?

Probably not much. Finding more than a thousand commencement speakers every year is a daunting job. Often a degree has to be dangled to attract a well-known speaker, and graduates pay so little attention to commencement talks that few will care (or remember) whether the speaker was Mother Teresa or Bullwinkle. Bill Buckley calls the commencement speech "a kind of final obstacle to their emancipation." The form is so tired, the rhetoric of youth facing the future so cliche-ridden, that colleges might be forgiven if they import a Trekkie idol once in a while.

Still, it seems clear that colleges no longer show much ability to resist entertainment values and the marketing power of the celebrity culture. In this culture, any Muppet can put a college on the map in a way that most doctors, scientists, lawyers or public officials can't. This same procedure has invaded the curriculum, too. Since colleges tend to be financially desperate, consumer-driven places now, the curriculum is more entertaining, more open to popular tastes and what students already know and want to hear more about. Courses on Batman, comic strips and TV shows are routine. Yale offers one on "Troubadours and Rock Stars," possibly covering the career of Dr. Sting, a recent honorary degree winner.

Look for more honors to go to singers and sitcom characters. In the past few years, academic degrees have gone to Cliff the mailman from "Cheers" (Sacred Heart University), Scotty the engineer from "Star Trek" (Milwaukee School of Engineering), George the fall guy from "Seinfeld" (Boston University), and this year, Vivian and Uncle Phil from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" (Norfolk State, Virginia State) and Billy the hunk from "Melrose Place" (Drew University). Coming next May to a university near you: the former key grip from "Gilligan's Island."

(Copyright, 1996, John Leo)

John Leo's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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