Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington will speak at this year’s 255th Commencement ceremony on May 16, the Office of the Secretary announced Tuesday.
Washington — whose son, Malcolm, is a sophomore in the College — was “absolutely and definitely our first choice” of the pool of possible speakers, University Secretary Leslie Kruhly said.
Kruhly highlighted Washington’s past roles depicting struggles for social justice in movies such as Malcolm X as well as his public service in support of the Boys and Girls Club of America. “He’s a wonderful example of excellence in his field,” she added.
College senior and Undergraduate Assembly President Matt Amalfitano, who served on an advisory committee to select the speaker, said he and others on the committee prioritized selecting a leader in arts and entertainment this year.
Recent speakers have included 1987 College graduate and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr., Google CEO Eric Schmidt and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“[Washington] is a very well-known and respected actor that I’m sure many [in] our graduating class would like to see. Name recognition is a big factor at play when choosing speakers,” Maher Zamel, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education and chairman of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, wrote in an email.
“I do personally question the relevance of choosing Hollywood personalities as commencement speakers,” Zamel wrote. “It seems to be a trend that is picking up traction across many American college campuses, and I’m not exactly sure how some of these choices directly pertain to graduating students.”
While a rumor that former President Bill Clinton would be speaking circulated around campus this week, Kruhly said it was “just that — only a rumor.”
When asked about possible student reactions to the choice of Washington, Amalfitano said, “With 2,500 seniors, everybody’s going to want someone different.” He hoped having Washington will be a “nice and healthy change” from past speakers.
In addition, six honorary degrees will be awarded during Commencement. Recipients will include Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences and medical sociologist Renée C. Fox, mobile communications entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, as well as Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn — the first husband-wife team to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Also receiving honorary degrees are Ei-ichi Negishi, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry who earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Penn, and award-winning author, poet and playwright Joyce Carol Oates.
“Everyone we’re honoring is really, really extraordinary,” Music Professor and University Council Committee on Honorary Degrees Chair Carol Muller said, noting the diversity of interests among the group.
The Office of the Chaplain is expected to announce the Baccalaureate speaker later this week or early next week. Individual schools’ speakers will also be announced in the coming days.
Ultimately, Amalfitano said the selection committee hoped to “find someone that the majority of students can identify with, and [Washington] fits that well.”