Students content with grad speaker pick
Actor Denzel Washington’s ties to Penn was not ‘a deciding factor’
March 24, 2011, 3:58 am · Updated March 24, 2011, 12:00 am·
With a diverse graduating class, it’s nearly impossible to find a perfect commencement speaker for everyone.
For some, though, this year’s orator — two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington — fits that bill.
“In the past two years we’ve seen business and political leaders not just at graduation, but at campus events as well,” College senior and Undergraduate Assembly Vice President Mark Pan said. “It’s great that someone so involved in philanthropy and the arts is speaking this year.”
University Secretary Leslie Kruhly wrote in an email that the committee that selects the speaker after input from students considered Washington’s status as a Penn parent to Malcolm, a College sophomore, to be a plus. However, “it was not a deciding factor.”
Wharton and Engineering senior Peter Maa said he favored the business-themed speakers from past years. While Maa is indifferent toward Washington as a speaker, “there’s a lot going on politically and financially, and I think we could get a better person to come,” he said.
Nevertheless, Washington was selected as commencement speaker because “he is among the most eminent and civically conscious actors and directors of our time,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said.
Gutmann added that she has gotten to know Washington and his wife Pauletta since their son matriculated at Penn.
“When our commencement speakers have knowledge and appreciation for the University, it enhances the experience for our students who are graduating,” Gutmann added.
College senior Megan Red Shirt-Shaw agreed. “Why not have somebody who is so well acclaimed and has a personal connection to Penn?” she said.
Shaw added that Washington’s familiarity with Penn may help him connect with students better than “a politician who is visiting Penn for the first time.”
2010 Wharton graduate Nikhil Kumar said Washington is a “bigger name” than last year’s commencement speaker, former United States Ambassador to China and 1987 College alumnus Jon Huntsman, Jr.
“Huntsman wasn’t mind-blowing, but he wasn’t terrible,” Kumar said, adding that he would have preferred to see Washington speak.
College sophomore and filmmaker Jonah Stern wrote in an email that while Penn is known for its preprofessional environment, there is “a surprisingly high number of kids who are really interested in — or serious about — the arts.”
Stern explained that having a variety of speakers branching out of the business and political arenas is a positive choice. “I think it’s important for Penn to place as much emphasis on cultural appreciation and education as it does on money making and career building,” he said.
College senior Adam Amdur is enthusiastic to hear Washington’s speech. “Denzel is simply the man,” he wrote in an e-mail. Amdur added that Washington’s films prove he “has serious swag, which I can’t say most previous commencement speakers possess.”