For Commencement, A Historically Male Set of Speakers

UPDATED: March 28, 2017 at 11:30 a.m.

When Mark E. Zuckerberg speaks at the University’s afternoon exercises in May, he will be the latest in a series of heads of state, television hosts, journalists, award-winner actors, and Cabinet members to have addressed a year of Harvard graduates.

But he will also join a cadre of overwhelmingly male speakers. In the past 30 years, the University has chosen seven women to deliver the Commencement Day oration—a pattern that some involved in planning graduation exercises criticize.

Avni Nahar ’17, a class program marshal in the Senior Class Committee, said it is “pretty disappointing” to hear that seven women in the past thirty years have been selected for the honor.

“I hadn’t realized the numbers were that low,” Nahar said.

The University President joins the president of the Board of Overseers, president of the Harvard Alumni Association, and chair of the Advisory Committee on Honorary Degrees in selecting Commencement speaker each year, according to University spokesperson Tania DeLuzuriaga.

The Commencement Day speaker addresses all of Harvard’s graduates, gathering from each of the graduate schools and the College. Zuckerberg, a Harvard College dropout, will finally receive a Harvard degree at the 366th commencement ceremony.

DeLuzuriaga declined to comment on whether gender or racial diversity is taken into account in the selection process, but highlighted the diverse backgrounds speakers come from.

“In recent years, Harvard’s Commencement speakers have included a wide range of distinguished individuals from diverse backgrounds and with varied professional accomplishments,” DeLuzuriaga wrote. “The list of the speakers since 2008 is testament to that diversity.”

Since Faust became president in 2008, Harvard has invited three women—author J.K. Rowling, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey—to be commencement speakers.

Nahar and her colleagues in the senior class committee will select the College’s Class Day speaker. The process for selecting Commencement and Class Day speaker is separate, although a liaison from the Harvard Alumni Association checks over the senior class committee’s final list to ensure that the groups are not inviting the same person.

Nahar said she has heard from “a lot of people” that they would “prefer to have a woman class day speaker, even ideally that they would like to have a woman of color.”

“Just because given the environment of Harvard, the makeup of professors, the historical speakers that have been at both commencement and class day—I think many people find it important to highlight voices that haven’t typically been highlighted in this way before,” Nahar said.

Victoria H. Jones ’17, another program marshal, said the committee decided to circulate a survey this year to the senior class, where students could submit write-in recommendations for the speaker. Jones said several hundred seniors responded to the survey.

Jones said gender diversity is “something we’re conscious of, but we’re not actively making a decision based on.”

Steven Spielberg Commencement Speaker 2016
Film director Steven Spielberg speaks at Commencement Day in May 2016.
“If a woman is chosen, that’s just because the person with the highest amount of excitement from the grade was a woman,” she added.

Nahar said she and Jones were proud of the list they have come up with, and said there was a significant amount of racial and gender diversity in the names submitted to the survey.

Some of Harvard’s peer institutions, like Yale and Brown, do not invite commencement speakers. The University of Pennsylvania invited the same number of women as Harvard in the past thirty years.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: March 28, 2017

A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that six women had been Commencement speakers in the last 30 years. In fact, seven women have been Commencement speakers in that time frame.