Social activist Geoffrey Canada will share his thoughts on the American education system with this year’s graduating class at the 256th commencement ceremony on May 14, the Office of the University Secretary announced at midnight on Tuesday.
Canada is founder and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a comprehensive education and health program that aims to end the cycle of poverty for families in Central Harlem.
His work was featured in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, and served as a model for President Barack Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods program, which distributes federal grants to impoverished areas of the country.
University Secretary Leslie Kruhly explained that the choice of Canada reflects the current interest in improving the American education system, citing the large number of 2011 graduates in the Teach for America program.
“When we choose a speaker, we think of who is right for the time,” she said. “We don’t want to have the same repetition year in and year out of one profession, so we look for someone who’s different and will work well within a given class.”
Commencement speakers over the past few years have included Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, 1987 College graduate and former United States Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., Google CEO Eric Schmidt and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Wharton senior and 2012 Class Board President Jibran Khan, who served on the advisory committee that selected the graduation speaker, said that while previous speakers like Washington and Bloomberg were more high-profile names, Canada is “a huge game-changer for the field of education” and “has probably contributed just as much if not more to the American public sphere.”
While Wharton and Engineering senior and Undergraduate Assembly President Tyler Ernst acknowledged that students may not be familiar with Canada’s work, he believes that the selection “makes a lot of sense given the recent recognition Penn has received for our merit in the areas of civic and community engagement.”
“I’d rather have an eloquent speaker than a high-profile speaker,” said Ernst, who also served on the advisory committee. He added that the choice of Canada is “a bit different from the past, and I’m very excited for the change.”
At commencement, Canada and six other individuals will receive honorary degrees from Penn. The recipients will include Central Intelligence Agency Director and retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus, civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), mathematician Peter Lax and actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
In addition, research scientist Akira Endo, creator of a revolutionary heart disease medication, and computer science and engineering professor and Chair Emerita Ruzena Bajcsy, founder of Penn’s General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception Laboratory, will also receive honorary degrees.
While Penn professor and University Council Honorary Degree Committee Chair Carol Muller is happy about this year’s honorees and believes they “embody all the values of Penn in every way,” she eventually would like to see more female degree recipients.
In the future, Muller hopes to see greater faculty and student involvement in nominating people, as “more student investment would only enrich the process.”