Seniors divided over grad speaker choice
Some have said that Geoffrey Canada is not high profile enough
March 20, 2012, 10:24 pm · Updated March 23, 2012, 12:06 am·
For many Penn seniors, news of Geoffrey Canada’s selection as commencement speaker was met with a resounding “Who?”
Many students were unfamiliar with Canada’s work as a social activist and founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone — and some were unhappy with his selection.
“I was a little disappointed that I’d never heard of him before,” College senior Will Considine said. “I’m a little bit embarrassed at how low-profile he is.”
Wharton senior Sushanth Bhaskarabhatla was also initially unaware of Canada’s work and said that “a lot of people probably expected someone more recognizable.”
However, he added that “people should save judgment until after the speech.”
“I think the most common reaction among my peers was, ‘Who is that?’” Engineering senior Amrita Nag said. “He’s not a high-profile speaker and I really doubt that anyone will become more socially conscious after his speech.”
Previous commencement speakers have included more widely known names, such as actor Denzel Washington and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, as well as politician and 1987 College graduate Jon Huntsman Jr., and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
According to University Secretary Leslie Kruhly, past emphasis on the fields of public service and government — as well as the current national focus on education reform and the high popularity of the Teach for America program among 2011 Penn graduates — led to the choice of Canada as this year’s speaker.
While College senior Stacey Warren believes name recognition is not an important factor in choosing who will deliver a graduation address, she questioned the choice of a speaker in the education field.
“It is difficult for me to grasp why the number of graduates in last year’s class going into a specific profession [such as TFA] has any impact on the attitudes and beliefs of this year’s graduating class,” she said.
However, College senior Ellen Wang, an executive board member of the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, believes that Canada is an appropriate choice given Penn’s emphasis on community outreach and social activism.
“To me he’s very much a high-profile speaker,” she said. “Canada is something different from the typical CEOs and political figures that don’t necessarily speak to something that is very unique to Penn versus many other academic institutions.”
Wharton senior Triston Francis called it an “honor” to have Canada addressing the senior class at commencement, pointing out that “the most important component is finding somebody that will leave us graduating seniors with a lasting message.”
Others disagreed that Canada was the best candidate to give the address.
“This has to be the worst choice made in the last few years,” Nag said.
College and Wharton senior Jacob Blumenfeld-Gantz felt that Central Intelligence Agency Director and former U.S. Army General David Petraeus — who is one of seven honorary degree recipients for commencement — would have been an “unbelievable” choice as the speaker on May 14.
While Wharton senior and 2012 Class Board President Jibran Khan — who served on the advisory committee that selected the commencement speaker — acknowledged that many seniors may not know who Canada is, he feels that students will ultimately react positively to his speech.
“I think Geoffrey Canada is going to be one of the names in a few years that you will want to know,” he said. “Right now maybe his name doesn’t have as much recognition, but going forward I think we — especially the seniors — will look back and say, ‘I’m so honored we had Canada speak to us.’”