Campus Currents

Short But Streep

Actress Meryl Streep, the 2003 commencement speaker. Photo by Doug Prince and UNH Photographic Services.

It was the university's 133rd commencement, and for the first time in more than 20 years, it rained. The ceremony began at 10 a.m. on May 24, "rain or shine," as promised, and the Class of 2003, roughly 2,400 strong, simply sprouted umbrellas. No one complained when President Ann Weaver Hart announced that the ceremony would be shortened by an hour.

UNH has had many famous speakers in the past, such as vice presidents Al Gore and George Bush (the father), but this year's speaker was a celebrity of a different stripe -- Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep, who has been called the best living American actress. At the request of the honorary degrees and awards committee, Jonathan Streep '03 had asked his famous aunt to speak. Two weeks before the event, Meryl Streep told the Portsmouth Herald that "my whole task, my whole job, is not to embarrass Jonathan." She most likely succeeded, judging by the laughter and frequent cheers she drew from the rain-drenched crowd as she read a poem, sang a song and imitated the "Doppler-oppler-oppler effect-ect-ect" of a large public address system -- all in the course of delivering a speech on "sexual politics."

At UNH and colleges across the country, Streep noted, graduating women now outnumber men by nearly two to one. Women have successfully claimed their place in the classroom, Streep concluded; yet "the glass ceiling is still in effect in the business world, the professions and politics. Imagine if the Senate were apportioned in the same way as your graduating class!"

To solve the problem, she encouraged the men in the audience to engage in "chivalry of a new sort... The door should be opened for the ladies, the boardroom door, and our gentlemen will have to do it." She also advised all her listeners to "put blinders on to those things that conspire to hold you back, especially the ones in your own head."

Streep ended with a nod, and a wink, to the Old Man of the Mountain, which had collapsed just three weeks earlier. "Two hundred years ago," she told the new graduates, "Daniel Webster remarked of the rocky crag: 'God has hung out a sign to show that in New England he makes Men.' I say, 'Hmmm... maybe God is changing the sign.'" ~

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