Sing-a-longs, crypto-shilling, and Ayahuasca: Ohio State’s commencement speech gone wrong

Chris Pan’s Ohio State University speech was a bizarre cocktail of sing-a-longs, crypto-shilling, and jewelry-slinging that left many in the audience stunned, Graig Graziosi reports.

Thursday 09 May 2024 14:55 BST
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Chris Pan, a ‘social entrepreneur’ and crypto advocate who was selected to give Ohio State University’s commencement address leads a sing-a-long during the ceremony on 5 May, 2024
Chris Pan, a ‘social entrepreneur’ and crypto advocate who was selected to give Ohio State University’s commencement address leads a sing-a-long during the ceremony on 5 May, 2024 (screengrab/ NBC 4 Columbus)

Ohio State University was solemn on a day meant for celebration; just hours before the university's commencement was scheduled to begin, an attendee suffered a fatal 136ft fall at the ceremony's venue, Ohio Stadium.

With so many families already at the stadium — an estimated 60,000 attended — and the event nearly underway, the university decided to go ahead with the ceremony despite the tragedy.

As always, a commencement speaker was chosen to give words of wisdom to the graduating seniors, but 2024's speaker had the extra burden of doing so under a cloud of despair.

Enter Chris Pan, a crypto-pushing "social entrepreneur" alumnus who was reportedly hand-picked by the university's president to deliver this year's commencement address.

It did not go well.

The speech was described as the "worst commencement speech ever" by some attendees who spoke to The Rooster, which reported on the strange address that graduating seniors were treated to on Sunday.

Despite never having given a speech of that size, Mr Pan was nonetheless selected to helm the ceremony. He reportedly thought it was a prank when he was first asked to give the address.

Sharing his anxieties about writing the speech on Facebook, Mr Pan revealed that he wrote parts of it while using the South American hallucinogen Ayahuasca — after a failed attempt to use ChatGPT.

"Got some help from AI (Ayahuasca Intelligence) this week to write my commencement speech for 60k grads and family members at Ohio State University next Sunday," he wrote. "We are in challenging times — wanted something extra heartfelt. (Tried chatGPT but wasn't that good)"

Mr Pan later edited the post to say he relied on “Higher Intelligence” rather than “Ayahuasca Intelligence.”

A screenshot of ‘social entrepreneur’ Chris Pan’s Facebook post claiming he used South American hallucinogen ayahuasca to help him write his Ohio State University commencement speech
A screenshot of ‘social entrepreneur’ Chris Pan’s Facebook post claiming he used South American hallucinogen ayahuasca to help him write his Ohio State University commencement speech (The Rooster via Chris Pan Facebook)

He shared a quote from author and fellow psychonaut Terence McKenna alongside his post.

"They'd say this to you in Peru, you know: This is our University. You went to Harvard, we went to Ayahuasca," the quote read.

What followed was a bizarre cocktail of sing-a-longs, crypto-shilling, and jewelry-slinging that left many in the audience stunned.

Shortly after the speech began, Mr Pan asked the crowd to stand and sing the 1993 4 Non Blondes hit "What's Up?"

"When I wake up in the morning and I step outside, I take a deep breath and I get real high, and I scream at the top of my lungs: what's going on?" Mr Pan sang before adding arm motions to coincide with the song's chorus.

After the singalong, Mr Pan began talking about investment, which eventually led to him recommending Bitcoin as a "very misunderstood asset class," earning audible boos and laughs from the crowd.

He even had a PowerPoint to go along with his commentary.

Right after, he appeared to suggest that singing was a better therapeutic for those suffering from mental illness than antidepressants.

"For emotional freedom, I stumbled into singing as a wellness practice after I went through a terrible heartbreak. Every morning, I felt so much sadness and pain. I considered taking antidepressants, but intuitively just started singing each morning," he said. " I’m not a trained singer but used it as a musical therapy."

He then told the crowd he was gifting them all bracelets featuring a word of their choosing as a daily reminder of their goals for spiritual and personal growth — noting that "details [were] coming via email".

Crypto-pushing OSU commencement speaker leads crowd in a sing-a-long during bizarre speech

His word? An ampersand, to stand as a reminder that racism — well, it's just not cool.

He bookended the speech with yet another sing-a-long, this time choosing "This Little Light of Mine."

One OSU graduate captured the feeling of the crowd during the speech in a video posted to TikTok.

“pov: ur graduating from OSU and the commencement speaker is asking us to sing and dance,” the user wrote. Mr Pan can be heard singing as students laugh and appear bewildered in the background.

Reporters at The Rooster were left wondering "How did this happen" — according to sources who spoke to the publication on condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from the university — it happened because OSU's President Walter Edward "Ted" Carter wanted it to happen.

Typically commencement speakers at OSU are picked by the Ohio State Speaker Advisory Committee, which uses a battery of criteria to determine whether or not a speaker would be a good fit for the university. Qualifiers like are they" a good public speaker" and can they "deliver a meaningful message with relevance for our graduating students" are among those considered during the selection process.

Barack Obama, Neil Armstrong, Senator Sherrod Brown, and Dr Anthony Fauci have previously given the university's graduation address.

The Ohio State University's football stadium, May 18, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio.
The Ohio State University's football stadium, May 18, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP)

According to the sources that spoke to The Rooster, the advisory committee creates a short list of candidates and sends them to the university's president — but the president has the final say.

His final say was, apparently, Chris Pan.

That revelation was especially troubling after Mr Pan revealed on a now-inaccessible social media post that Mr Carter sits on the Board of Directors for Terawulf, a Bitcoin mining company. The original social media post can still be viewed at The Rooster.

"With @ohiostatepres - he is on the board of zero-carbon bitcoin mining company @terawulf and daughter does psychedelic assisted therapy!" Mr Pan wrote.

OSU Assistant Vice President of Media and Public Relations, Ben Johnson, told The Independent that Mr Pan was on this year’s nomination list.

“Chris Pan was on the nomination list, which includes nominations going back several years,” Mr Johnson said. “President Carter met Chris Pan for the first time the evening before commencement. They have no financial relationship. It is common for university presidents to sit on public and private boards.”

Mr Pan concurred with that timeline and told The Independent that he met Mr Carter the weekend of the graduation.

“I first met President Carter this past Saturday and really enjoyed our conversation,” he told The Independent.

Ohio State University President Walter Edward ‘Ted’ Carter
Ohio State University President Walter Edward ‘Ted’ Carter (Ohio State University)

Bitcoin enthusiasts on social media made clear they approved of the speech. A verified account called "The Bitcoin Therapist" shared a clip of Mr Pan's speech — including the boos at the mention of Bitcoin — and celebrated the address.

"OSU graduate, Chris Pan, takes ayahuasca to write his commencement speech and then tells 60,000 people buy #Bitcoin to protect their purchasing power," the account wrote. "What a f****** legend."

The university's spokesperson, Ben Johnson, declined to comment on Mr Pan's mention of Bitcoin during the speech but did tell local broadcaster WCMH that the university does not approve speeches, though officials did read Mr Pan's draft notes.

Mr Pan told The Independent that he was not actively trying to hawk Bitcoin, but used the cyrptocurrency “as a teaching example to keep an open mind as [students] learn to invest.”

“One of the big misunderstandings is that I am telling everyone to buy Bitcoin and that I am one of those Bitcoin bros,” he said. “Here’s what I actually said: ‘Great investors are open minded and understand things before others. I know this might feel polarizing but I encourage you to keep an open mind. Right now, I see Bitcoin as a very misunderstood asset class.’”

An anonymous university official who spoke to The Rooster said Mr Pan was the "worst person I have ever worked with" with regard to preparing the commencement speech.

The source also revealed that earlier drafts of the speech included numerous references to Israel and Palestine — always a minefield of a topic, but especially after OSU used the Ohio State Patrol to deal with Gaza protesters the previous week — and asked for the references to be removed.

Despite the response to some of the less-conventional moments from the speech, Mr Pan is still proud of the message he delievered. He told The Independent that he’s received positive feedback, and explained his thinking heading into the graduation ceremony:

“I have someone posting on Instagram that I have ‘delivered the most actionable graduation advice in the history of humanity’ and someone else posting ‘this guy just summarized everything in 10 minutes what I’ve spent 20 years learning the hard way.’ I had many people tell me how fun and enjoyable of an experience that was compared to the typical speech. We live in a heavy world and we all need to breathe, move, sing, and meditate!

My intention was to pretend my brother was in the audience and what would I want to leave him with. I wanted my message to be very actionable: learn investing (e.g., look into bitcoin), take care of emotional health (e.g., sing!), and connect spiritually (e.g., practice setting intentions). I am also a big believer that ‘show me and I forget, involve me and I understand’ - so I made sure we had time to practice the teachings.

I know it was very non-conventional but I am obsessed with impact. Many speeches I attend I forget the next day. I figured if I take my message, simplify it, and add a melody - then it’s a jingle people will remember for a long time. I’ve been giving corporate speeches for over a decade, and also I always have interactivity as part of the experience.”

If nothing else, the speech was, at least, memorable.

This story has been updated to include comments from Ohio State University and commencement speaker Chris Pan.

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