Sebelius To Speak To HKS Graduates

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius will be this year’s Commencement speaker for the Harvard Kennedy School, University officials announced yesterday morning.

Her selection drew a mixed response from students.

While many students said that they are receptive to hearing Sebelius speak at the June 3 graduation ceremony, some added that they had hoped for a more high-profile speaker.

“My heart didn’t skip a beat when I heard about it,” said Sam H. Sanders, who said he had wanted President Obama to be the graduation speaker. He also added that Sebelius—who has been nominated as the next Secretary of Health and Human Services—is the University’s second commencement speaker linked to the Obama administration this year. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu will be speaking at the College’s commencement as well.

“While I, as a progressive, don’t mind, I wonder what all the conservatives at Harvard are thinking,” he said.

Gary J. Mann, another student, said he would have preferred a Republican speaker at Commencement.

“It’s healthy to bring in a partisan viewpoint,” he said. “We hopefully train both Republicans and Democrats.”

But according to Edward K. Sebelius, the Governor’s son and a Kennedy School student who will graduate this year, the speech is unlikely to be partisan in nature.

“She has spent a lot of her time in public office trying to diminish partisan politics,” he said.

Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis, also commended Sebelius’s bipartisan reputation. He said that he and many of his health policy students felt Sebelius was an excellent speaker choice and looked forward to hearing about her policy suggestions as well as her experience in public service.

The Kennedy School typically asks its commencement speakers to discuss the value of a career in public service, according to Joseph J. McCarthy, the director of degree programs. He speculated that Sebelius may have been selected in part because of her connection to the Department of Health and Human Services, an area in which Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75 served during the Clinton administration. McCarthy added that Sebelius’ policy interests coincide with many hot topics at the Kennedy School, such as education policy and health care.

Kennedy School student Leroy E. Foster said he would like the governor to discuss her plans for health policy.

“I’m really interested in what she has to say, particularly because the administration will be involved in ambitious health care reform,” he said.

Edward Sebelius said he hopes his peers will find his mother’s speech worthwhile.

“I’m really proud,” he said. “And I’ll be totally nervous until her speech is done.”

—Staff writer Niha S. Jain can be reached at nsjain@fas.harvard.edu.