Award-winning author and criminal justice reform advocate Bryan Stevenson will give the commencement speech at Penn's graduation ceremony on May 20, Vice President and University Secretary Leslie Kruhly announced in a press release Tuesday. Stevenson will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the event.
Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which has led the fight to eliminate unfair sentencing and to exonerate innocent prisoners on death row. Stevenson has won several cases in the United States Supreme Court, most recently in a historic ruling that banned mandatory life-without-parole prison sentences for children 17 and younger.
Stevenson is the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award, and the 2016 American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award. He also won an NAACP Image Award for his bestselling book "Just Mercy." He has also received 29 honorary doctoral degrees, including those from Harvard University, Yale University, and Princeton University.
“We are honored to bestow our highest degree on Bryan Stevenson and have him address our graduates at Penn’s 263rd Commencement,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann, according to the press release.
“As a champion of equal justice, he has dedicated his life to fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal-justice system. As a legal advocate and steadfast defender of our nation’s most important democratic ideals, he sets a positive example of the impact that Penn graduates may have as they prepare to put their education to work as engaged citizens,” Gutmann said.
His appearance in May will not be Stevenson's first time on Penn's campus. In March 2018, Stevenson attended a #FreeMeekMill-inspired event in Irvine Auditorium, where supporters gathered to advocate for the Philadelphia rapper's release.
“I want us to fight for Meek Mill, but I also want us to fight for all the men and the boys, and the girls and the women in jail because of injustice,” Stevenson said at the event in 2018.
In previous years, students have noted that political ideologies of speaker choices have tended to align more closely with the left. NBC news anchor Andrea Mitchell, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Lin-Manuel Miranda have been recent speakers.
“We’re looking for someone who is best in class, whatever that class is,” Kruhly told the DP in 2016. “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.”
At the ceremony, Penn will grant honorary degrees to Jon Bon Jovi, Temple Grandin, Richard Lugar, Denis Mukwege, Laurie Olin, Neville Strumpf, and Jill Tarter.