Penn announced Tuesday that Bryan Stevenson, human rights lawyer and award-winning writer, will deliver Penn's 2019 commencement speech. Some students say Penn is making a powerful statement by choosing an activist for social justice and prison reform as this year's speaker.
Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which has led the fight to eliminate unfair sentencing and to exonerate innocent incarcerated people on death row. In March 2018, Stevenson came to Penn to speak at a #FreeMeekMill-inspired event in Irvine Auditorium, where supporters gathered to advocate for the Philadelphia rapper's release.
Stevenson has also won several United States Supreme Court cases, most recently in a historic ruling that banned mandatory life-without-parole prison sentences for children 17 and younger.
President of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Haley Pilgrim, who is also a fourth-year sociology Ph.D. candidate, said she is "excited that Penn made such a strong statement" by choosing Stevenson as this year's commencement speaker.
“I think right now there’s a lot of painful things done by the government so we are in an environment that is violent for a lot of people," Pilgrim, who is part of the Speaker Advisory Group and the University Council Committee on Honorary Degrees, said. "To choose someone who is such a social justice activist and has done so much for marginalized people, for the poor, for people of color, and for children of color, it’s a powerful statement.”
Undergraduate Assembly President and College senior Michael Krone, who also sits on both commencement groups along with Pilgrim, said that as a member of the advisory board, he surveyed the senior class in fall 2018 about their top choices for commencement speaker. He presented the results to the Office of the University Secretary, which oversees the choice of commencement speaker. Krone said 234 seniors answered the survey.
Though Stevenson was not among the seniors' top choices, which included singer John Legend, former first lady Michelle Obama, and former Vice President Joe Biden, Krone said he is pleased with Penn's choice.
Undergraduate Assembly Vice President and College junior Jordan Andrews, who is also a part of the advisory groups to choose a commencement speaker, said Stevenson is a talented orator, having heard his 2012 TED talk, which centered around racial imbalance in the justice system.
"It’s a very timely choice for the University just because it’s been a long time coming for more institutions to start recognizing the complexities of the prison industrial complex," said Andrews, who also directs communications for Beyond Arrests: Re-Thinking Systematic Oppression, a student advocacy group for criminal justice reform.
Penn Law professor Claire Finkelstein said she has invited Stevenson to speak in her classes multiple times as a professor after hearing his guest lecture when she was a student at Yale Law School.
As she got to know him better, Finkelstein "realized that [Stevenson's] inspirational oratory was born of the deepest commitment to the rights of individuals with whom he intersected," she wrote in an email. "One that puts to shame those of us who have chosen to support the battle for civil rights from the sidelines, namely as academics rather than by engaging in the hand-to-hand combat of litigation."
Other students applauded that Stevenson was speaker without strong political leanings.
"GPA is excited by Penn's selection of Bryan Stevenson as the commencement speaker this year," Government and Politics Association President Justin Greenman said. "We think he will be an inspiring and educational choice beyond the recent, more politically partisan speakers."
Students have previously criticized Penn for choosing speakers left-leaning political ideologies.
Wharton sophomore Sara Michaels said she watched Stevenson speak three years ago when he came to her high school for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “It was really inspiring to see what he has done and the impact he has had on the world,” Michaels said. “I remember being moved to tears, and a lot of my fellow classmates were as well.”
Michaels added that Penn graduates will be sent off to “join the real world” after hearing Stevenson’s message about social justice.
College sophomore Bryce Nguyen said the class of 2019 is lucky to have Stevenson as a commencement speaker.
"I saw him at my sister’s graduation from Williams College in 2016," Nguyen said. "I thought he was a super inspiring, passionate, and empowering orator, and I’m glad to know that he will be coming to Penn."
Last year's commencement speaker was Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent for NBC and 1967 College graduate Andrea Mitchell. U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) spoke at commencement in 2017. In 2016, award-winning composer, playwright, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke at graduation, and in 2015, Penn invited Pulitzer Prize-winning United Nations representative Samantha Power to speak.
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