Howard University students split over Diddy commencement speech controversy

Not long after Howard University confirmed Sean “Diddy” Combs as its next commencement speaker, a slew of mixed emotions and views from students, alumni, and friends of the university filled the social media airways.

Some people have applauded the university for finally solidifying a relationship with a longtime unofficial alumnus, while others questioned Diddy’s caliber as a role model for this year’s graduates.

“When we are considering commencement speakers, I think we should hold our alum to a certain standard,” says Geoffrey Witherspoon II, a third-year law student at Howard University. “I don’t think of whether or not he graduated. A lot of influential people didn’t graduate from college. I would just feel much more comfortable with having an alum come back and speak to us who wasn’t just present when we had to give him an award or when we were throwing a party.”

Diddy has been compared to the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs — all entrepreneurs who dropped out of school, became widely successful, and were later asked to speak at their alma mater’s commencement.  After two years as a business major, Diddy left Howard in 1990 to intern at Uptown Records and kick-start his music career in New York. Today, he is the world’s highest-paid hip-hop artist with an estimated net worth of $580 million.

Although he’s not an official alum of Howard, he got his start in music by throwing parties on campus and has previously credited the university for helping to inspire his business acumen.

It is this fact that makes two-time Howard graduate Marcus Ware an enthusiastic supporter of the Diddy commencement invite and sees it as an opportunity to leverage the hip-hop mogul’s affinity for the university.

“It just makes perfect sense for anyone to cultivate that relationship. He has the resources and means to rally support for the university,” said Ware.

Ware, who currently serves as Senior Relationship Manager for the United Negro College Fund, says this decision should be an example for other HBCUs to emulate.

“Obviously a lot of HBCUs do not cultivate these kinds of relationships which is why they’re in the situation they’re in today. One thing I will say about HBCUs is that our fundraising mechanisms and our relationship building capacities has been minimized over the years,” said Ware.

He believes that those complaining about Diddy’s brand aren’t doing him justice.

“I think if you ask 5 different people, they will give you 5 different answers on what Diddy’s brand is. He is a very multifaceted, smart, and savvy businessman. If anyone is a fan of the institution, we should be willing to hear what they have to say.”

It seems the underlying catalyst for such mixed perspectives stems from the instability of Howard’s brand this past year, from the removal of President Sidney Ribeau to contention with board of trustees.

There’s even been rumors of the University facing financial woes. From a PR perspective, this could be the last thing the university needs.

“We have been in the press [for] everything from [Homecoming] going awry to funding with the hospital,” says Michael Fraser, a 2008 graduate of Howard. “I would think they would get a figure that could lift the school’s image.”

Daniel White, a junior at the University, says he’s heard current students share Fraser’s sentiment.

“Some people are kind of mad because of what Diddy may represent. Because he’s a hip-hop mogul and liquor salesman,” says White, who serves as Opinions Editor at the school’s newspaper, The Hilltop. “He’s this guy who made it off the skills he figured he could do and not the degree that he didn’t get.” White says Diddy’s commencement address is expected to be a major topic in their graduation issue.

White adds, however, he’s actually excited to hear from Diddy and thinks associating Howard with his brand is the right move for the University.

“I personally think Diddy is the right choice and a bright-line success story for Howard students. I’m just curious and want to see what he has to say.”

That’s one thing everyone can agree on. Whether for or against Diddy speaking, he’ll soon have one of the most prestigious stages and platforms under his feet — so everyone is going to be listening intently.

“I mean, I’m not going to boycott graduation. I’ve been here for 7 years. When I looked forward to May 17, 2014, I wasn’t thinking P.Diddy as a top choice but I understand his story,” said White.

Sean “Diddy” Combs (a.k.a. Puff Daddy) will deliver the 146th commencement address at Howard University on Saturday, May 10, 2014 and receive an honorary doctorate in humanities at the convocation.