Pomp and Controversy: 7 Contentious Commencement Speakers

From Barbara Bush to Jerry Springer, not all graduation speakers are greeted with applause.

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Students wear mortarboards with a yellow cross and pair of baby feet to protest Barack Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame on May 17, 2009.

While Harvard students are looking forward to media mogul Oprah Winfrey addressing graduates at commencement this Thursday, and actor Ben Affleck got laughs for making fun of his friend Matt Damon when he accepted an honorary degree at Brown over Memorial Day weekend, not all keynote speakers have been as well-received. TIME looks back at some of the more controversial graduation speeches over the years.

(MORECongrats, College Grads: TIME Wants Your Photos)

First Lady Barbara Bush at Wellesley College (1990)

In a petition, 150 students protested the choice of the First Lady as a speaker at the June 1st commencement, arguing that she was not a good role model for modern women because she dropped out of Smith College to get married and became well-known only through the accomplishments of her husband President George H.W. Bush. President Bush defended his wife, arguing, ”I think these young women can have a lot to learn from Barbara Bush and from her unselfishness and from her advocacy of literacy and of being a good mother and a lot of other things.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell at Harvard University (1993)

To protest the ban on homosexuals serving in the military at the time, Harvard graduates silently held up signs and pink balloons distributed by a student gay rights group that read “Lift The Ban” during General Powell’s June 11 address. Some stood with their backs facing the distinguished speaker when he accepted his honorary degree in law.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at Syracuse University (2002)

Some African-American Studies professors did not attend the ceremony, protesting the former NYC mayor’s “insensitivity to racial issues,” according to the New York Times. During the May 12th speech, some graduates stood with their fists in the air, while others held up wallets in honor of Amadou Diallo, a supposedly unarmed West African immigrant who, a few years before, was shot 41 times by New York City police as he was reportedly searching for his ID.

Author Salman Rushdie at Nova Southeastern University (2006)

Undergraduate members of the International Muslim Association boycotted the May 7th ceremony because Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, contains passages that many Islamists find offensive.

Talk Show Host and Former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer at Northwestern University School of Law (2008)

When 1968 alum Jerry Springer was selected to be Northwestern Law’s graduation speaker, some students circulated a petition, arguing that future lawyers should not take advice from a “sensationalist” daytime talk-show host who had to resign from the Cincinnati City Council in 1974 after writing a check to a prostitute. Springer, however, received a standing ovation at the May 16th commencement, even joking, “I’ve been virtually everything you can’t respect: a lawyer, a mayor, a news anchor and a talk show host. Pray for me; if I get to heaven, we’re all going.”

(WATCH: The Best Celebrity Graduation Speeches)

President Barack Obama at the University of Notre Dame (2009)

Pro-life Catholics vehemently opposed Notre Dame’s choice of President Barack Obama as its graduation speaker and recipient of an honorary degree because of his support for abortion rights. Inside the university’s basketball arena on May 17, dissenting students taped yellow crosses and baby feet pictures to their mortarboards and one protester shouted “baby killer!”, while anti-abortion activists demonstrated off-campus – and at least 27 were arrested before the speech even began, according to police.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett at Millersville University (2013)

Some members of the campus community thought it was ironic that a leader who proposed dramatic cuts to the budgets of state schools like Millersville was given the honor of being the keynote speaker. During Governor Corbett’s May 18th speech, professors wore yellow pins that said, “I support public education,” students turned their chairs away from the distinguished speaker, and one in particular sported a mortarboard that read, “Game of Loans.”

This article has been updated to clarify that a protester, not a student, shouted “baby killer!” at the 2009 Notre Dame commencement.

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