Earlier this week, Penn students praised the University for selecting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the speaker for Penn’s 2020 commencement, the first Black female speaker since 1978. While this does reflect an unfortunate lack of diversity presented by Penn’s choices of commencement speakers over the last four decades, it hopefully shows Penn leaning toward a more progressive and diverse future list of commencement speakers.
In 2004, Adichie’s critically-acclaimed novel “Purple Hibiscus” was awarded the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2003, “Purple Hibiscus" was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Adichie’s 2006 novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” was later awarded the Women's Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction) in 2007. Penn students have also praised Adichie’s TED Talks, specifically her 2009 TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story,” and her 2012 TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists.”
In 1978, then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Harris delivered the commencement speech, when she held the cabinet position under President Jimmy Carter. Harris was the first Black woman to enter the Presidential line of succession. In 1979, Harris went on to become the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Previously, Harris had also been the United States ambassador to Luxembourg.
In the past several years, Penn has featured several minority commencement speakers. Last year’s speaker, Bryan Stevenson, was well received by Penn students, despite not being many students' first choice for speaker. In 2017, Undergraduate Assembly leaders said they had little involvement in the selection process, and thought that the Speaker Advisory Group would have a bigger role in the process. After some changes were put in place by then-UA president and College senior Kat McKay, Speaker Advisory Group members have had more of an impact on the speaker selection process.
Sadly, Penn’s list of commencement speakers lacks both female and minority representation. Over the last several decades, less than half of recipients of honorary degrees at commencement have been women. The list of commencement speakers since 1938 shows this failure by the University, which has thankfully been slowly corrected in the last years. Even with Adichie speaking this year, however, we must hope that the University will not wait another 42 years to invite another Black female speaker to deliver the commencement address.
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