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The weighty task of choosing the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient starts 18 months or longer before the actual graduation

Credit: Alex Graves

When the name Lin-Manuel Miranda came up as a possible candidate for commencement speaker, it was met with support, particularly from Penn President Amy Gutmann, who had seen the now Tony award-winning creator and star of Hamilton on its opening night.

Over a year ago the University Council Honorary Degree Committee started the process of picking the commencement speaker for the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of 2016.

Luckily, one of the trustees on the Honorary Degrees Committee tasked with selecting the commencement speaker every year was a friend of the Miranda family and was able to secure his commitment.

Past commencement speakers were often successful individuals from the political or business world, such as Vice President Joe Biden, philanthropist Bono or Jon Huntsman. Now, the University is open to an even wider variety of fields than it has been in the past.

“In some people’s minds having someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda would have been an unusual choice 25 or 30 years ago,” Kruhly said.

But there is a common thread that runs through the selection every year. According to Vice President and University Secretary Leslie Kruhly, Penn looks for successful people from diverse backgrounds.

“We’re looking for someone who is best in class, whatever that class is,” she said. “We try not to have a cluster of scientists or a cluster of artists. We try to have people who represent work in different areas.”

The University looks for someone with enough name recognition for students to recognize, as well as an ability to effectively deliver remarks that capture the attention of 25,000 students and their guests that fill Franklin Field.

The weighty task of choosing the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient starts 18 months or longer before the actual graduation.

Every year the Office of the University Secretary organizes a student advisory group, which creates a survey to figure out who the rising senior class would like as a commencement speaker.

Elon Musk, Beyonce, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and Ellen Degeneres are some of the top suggestions, Class Board President and rising College senior Darren Tomasso told The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Students requesting public figures like the Obamas might be disappointed given their popularity as graduation speakers.

“Most universities would not like their speaker to be someone who spoke at ‘their competition’ the year before,” said Kruhly. “The last thing you want is for your school to be one of several.”

The University tries to make sure the speaker doesn’t appear at another commencement during the same year. This year Miranda agreed to only give commencement remarks at the Penn.

Current members of the student advisory group include Tomasso, Undergraduate Assembly President and rising College senior Kat McKay and Class Board Vice President and rising College senior Max Levy.

Tomasso liked the current survey suggestions, and also said he would like to see comedian Jon Oliver. McKay said her top choice was Bruce Springsteen, while Levy was uncommitted.

“As long as it’s somebody compelling who can speak well, I’ll be happy,” Levy noted.

Although the student advisory group and the University Council Honorary Degree Committee can make suggestions, the Board of Trustees makes the final decision.

The ultimate decision-making power of the students is limited, but this could be for a good reason — on the student survey, the satirical presidential candidate “Deez Nuts” is currently polling higher than Mark Zuckerberg.

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