Several Months ago, prominent journalist Fareed Zakaria told Harvard University’s graduating class, “You don’t need an ethics course to know what you shouldn’t do.”
It was good advice, as members of Duke University’s class of 2012 could attest. At Duke’s commencement 11 days before, Zakaria had uttered precisely the same words.
Zakaria’s Harvard and Duke commencement speeches were essentially identical, built around the same anecdotes and points and often the same language.
The addresses have set some at Harvard and Duke atwitter.
“I spoke to him while he was here,” said one Duke employee, “and I got the strong impression from him that his Harvard speech would be a different presentation. Oh, well, at least Duke got it first.”
Not all of it, actually. Zakaria hit many of the same notes, including the line about ethics, in an address to the Johns Hopkins University class of 2011. He also used some of them for the Brown University class of 2009 and the Yale University class of 2007.
Zakaria said the overlap was natural, especially in the Harvard and Duke speeches.
“Those are students from two very similar institutions graduating within two weeks of each other,” he said. “I don’t see how I could have come up with two completely different speeches without giving one group a second-rate talk. I’d rather come up with the same important message I think they need to hear.”
He added that many other commencement speakers recycle their own material.
That is true. Governor Deval Patrick spoke at six commencements in 2009; they overlapped so much that some students listened with homemade Bingo cards in hand.
For a commencement address at Syracuse University this year, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin repeated lines from a speech he had given there 15 years ago and zingers from some of his television shows.
But not all high-profile commencement speakers are so predictable. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, for example, gave back-to-back, completely different speeches at Franklin & Marshall College and the University of North Carolina in May.
And Temple Grandin, the autism advocate and livestock expert, who spoke at four commencements this year, said she made a point of never giving even roughly the same speech twice.
“I find out about each campus, the place, and the people, and I try to deviate a lot,” she said in an interview.
Consultants who handle graduation speakers said it was odd for someone, particularly a writer, to deliver the same keynote at two top-tier institutions within two weeks.
“Usually, they’re very different speeches,” said Randell Kennedy, who has handled more than 100 commencement talks as president of the consultancy Academy Communications. “One reason for that is Google, because you can just plug in the text from one school and — holy cow! — find it at the