Bernanke, considered the nation’s most influential economic policy maker, follows in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton, who spoke at Class Day last year.
“When we found out J.K. Rowling was going to be speaking [at Commencement], we wanted to find someone that would kind of balance our graduation ceremonies,” said Class Marshall Alexander J. Tennant ’08. “He’s a Harvard alum, and he is also in a position to make major decisions for the US and the economy, and we thought he would provide that perfect balance of thought.”
Bernanke joins a list of Class Day speakers that includes such notables as Mother Teresa, playwright Arthur Miller, former Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis, and Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr.
But lately, the Class Day appointment has taken on a comedic flavor, with five of the last seven speakers being humorists. Since 2000, the list includes late-night host Conan O’Brien ’85, former “Saturday Night Live” stars Will Ferrell and Al Franken ’73, “Da Ali G Show” creator Sacha Baron Cohen, and Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the popular television show “Family Guy.”
“I think the Class might at first...have to think about this a little bit to realize how the decision was made, given that so much of the focus has been on comedians,” Tennant said.
He added that the choice did not mean that Class Day would end up being “a bore,” as Bernanke very well “could take it in a more lighthearted direction.” There are a number of student orations on Class Day, two of which are intended to be playful, Tennant said.
Jeffrey S. Bramson ’08, an economics concentrator, said that the response he has heard from many students has been “fairly negative,” as the Commencement and Class Day speakers seem to be reversed in their expected roles.
“He should have some interesting things to say,” Bramson said. “As far as economics goes, he’s about the most qualified person.”
In the midst of a sharp decline in financial markets that has sent shockwaves across the globe, Bernanke, a former Winthrop House resident, has earned both praise and ire for his active role in trying to alleviate what he has recently acknowledged might be a recession.
The downturn, prompted by unexpectedly high rates of home loan defaults, resulted in the collapse of the investment bank Bear Stearns. The Fed stepped in with a $30 billion credit line to help JPMorgan Chase acquire the beleaguered bank.
On Tuesday, former Fed Chair Paul A. Volcker publicly chided Bernanke for the Fed’s recent interventions, which he called excessive.
But James M. Poterba ’80, chairman of the MIT Economics Department and head of the National Bureau for Economic Research, said that Bernanke has thus far done a good job handling the difficulties posed by current circumstances.
“In a situation which has...confronted the Federal Reserve with circumstances that are outside the current range of expectations, he’s done a very good job heading off what could have been a very difficult situation,” Poterba said. “I think in his handling of the financial developments of the last few months, he’s shown the capacity to think outside the box.”
Poterba added that the ability to be flexible in the face of changing circumstances is an important lesson that can be passed on for the benefit of the graduating class.
Bernanke was selected by a 14-member subcommittee of the Senior Class Committee in conjunction with members of the Harvard Alumni Association, according to Tennant.
Bernanke’s press office could not be reached for comment on the Class Day decision yesterday.
—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.