Vice President Joe Biden will deliver this year’s commencement address, marking the first time ever that a sitting vice president has been Penn’s commencement speaker, the University announced Tuesday.
He will speak at Franklin Field on May 13.
Biden’s appearance will be the second time in the past four years that the vice president has given a commencement address at Penn. He last spoke at the School of Social Policy & Practice’s commencement in 2010, when his daughter, Ashley, graduated with a master’s degree in social work.
“When you look at the vice president and his leadership now, especially in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, he is the embodiment of all of the qualities that we’re looking for to inspire our graduates,” said 1967 College graduate Andrea Mitchell, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News and chair of the Trustee Committee on Honorary Degrees and Awards. “We’re lucky to have him.”
University Vice President and Secretary Leslie Kruhly said that Penn invited Biden to campus well before the election in November.
“The vice president has been on our wish list for some time,” she said, emphasizing that Penn’s invitation was not dependent on whether the Obama-Biden ticket was re-elected. “We wanted him not just because of his current position, but for his lifetime of public service.”
Biden began his lifetime of public service in 1970, when he first became a county council member in Delaware.
Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served for more than three decades until being sworn in as vice president in 2009. During his time in the Senate, he was well known for his leadership role on legislation like the Violence Against Women Act.
Biden, who also chaired the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination twice — in 1988 and 2008.
“This is a great opportunity for Penn,” said College and Wharton junior Abe Sutton, the Undergraduate Assembly’s vice president and a member of Penn’s Speaker Advisory Group. “I think people are going to be very enthusiastic, regardless of political persuasion, that someone of his stature is coming to campus.”
Biden has been in the public spotlight in recent months, serving as chair of a national gun violence task force formed in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting.
In addition to his daughter’s time at SP2, Biden has a number of other connections to Penn.
Biden’s granddaughter, Naomi, is currently a College freshman. The vice president is also personal friends with Penn President Amy Gutmann — a relationship that Kruhly said was especially helpful in bringing Biden to campus.
While Kruhly said the University first considers the quality of a speaker when extending invitations for commencement, she acknowledged that a personal connection to Penn is always an added benefit.
“When you have someone who can come as a terrific speaker who has an inherent understanding of the group they’re speaking to, it’s much better,” she said. “It certainly makes it nicer and, in a way, more meaningful.”
Although Biden’s appearance is sure to prompt excitement across campus, his selection also marks the seventh year in a row — and the 18th time in the past 20 years — that Penn’s commencement has featured a male speaker.
Last year, music professor Carol Muller, the former chair of the University Council Committee on Honorary Degrees, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that she would like to see more women recognized at commencement in the future.
“The only thing I can say is that gender diversity is extremely important to us, and every year it’s our hope and expectation that in the near future we’ll be able to announce a woman speaker,” Kruhly said. “I hope that within the next year or two we’ll achieve that goal.”
Kruhly pointed to this year’s slate of honorary degree recipients as a sign of the importance of diversity at commencement.
Among the nine individuals receiving honorary degrees this year, Penn will recognize former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who currently serves as executive director of UN Women, and Xerox Corporation Chair and CEO Ursula Burns, who was the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Biden will also receive an honorary Doctor of Laws.
Because of heightened security, the Franklin Field gates will open at 7 a.m. on May 13. All attendees will be required to pass through an airport-style security checkpoint before entering the field.
The University has already begun working with Secret Service on planning, Kruhly said.
While Penn has hosted a number of sitting presidents as commencement speakers in the past — including Gerald Ford in 1975 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 — Biden will be the first vice president to deliver the main graduation address.
“Penn has outdone itself in finding such an accomplished speaker,” said College junior Dan Bernick, the Undergraduate Assembly’s president and a member of the Speaker Advisory Group. “The vice president’s decades-long career in public service, along with his passion for being part of the Penn family, makes him a great choice. We couldn’t be more excited.”