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Harvard Struggles To Find Class Day Speaker Less Than 2 Weeks Before Ceremony

More than 10 people have declined to speak at Harvard College's annual Class Day this year.
More than 10 people have declined to speak at Harvard College's annual Class Day this year. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Azusa M. Lippit and Cam N. Srivastava, Crimson Staff Writers

More than 10 people have declined offers to serve as the keynote speaker for Harvard College’s annual Class Day, leaving the Harvard Alumni Association scrambling to find a speaker with less than two weeks until the ceremony for undergraduate seniors.

The potential speakers declined for a variety of reasons, including an unwillingness to affiliate with Harvard during a year of controversy, scheduling conflicts, and high honorarium requests, according to Senior Class First Marshal Fez S. Zafar ’24.

“What was explained to us was that obviously this year is probably a rougher year for someone to affiliate themselves with Harvard, especially if they don’t have an existing connection,” said Zafar, who will give remarks at Class Day.

A Harvard College spokesperson said that none of the speakers cited the ongoing controversy at the University for declining the offer to address students at the ceremony.

The spokesperson, however, did not deny that the Harvard Alumni Association — which is responsible for reaching out to candidates — has struggled to secure a keynote speaker.

“Class Day provides a wonderful opportunity to recognize our graduating seniors and to express gratitude for their contributions to Harvard and to all of the families, alumni, faculty, and staff who supported their success,” the spokesperson wrote. “We look forward to this year’s celebration.”

The HAA did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

The hesitation to affiliate with Harvard comes after the University faced intense backlash over its initial response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The ongoing pro-Palestine encampment protest in Harvard Yard has also called into question the logistics of this year’s Commencement and Class Day ceremonies — which normally occur in Tercentenary Theatre, where protesters recently set up additional tents.

Last year, Harvard announced on May 5 that Larry Wilmore, an Emmy Award-winning television writer and comedian, would serve as the 2023 Class Day speaker. However, it is unclear when Wilmore agreed to give the ceremony’s keynote address.

Zafar said the Senior Class Committee is not the only Harvard group struggling to bring prominent speakers to campus.

“I’ve spoken with other organizations/groups this year, and I think they have also experienced the same thing,” Zafar said. “It’s just a constraint that we’re working within.”

The Senior Class Committee initially provided a list of 20 people to the HAA, but so far none of the candidates have agreed to speak at the event.

“We cannot confirm the list of speakers who have been asked in order to preserve confidentiality and the potential for future requests — and we do not share full details of who was asked and their responses,” a College spokesperson wrote in a statement.

The candidates on the Senior Class Committee’s initial list included Harvard dropout Matt Damon, a former member of the Class of 1992, 15-time NBA All-Star Shaquille O’Neal, former U.S. president Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and Canadian rapper Drake. Damon, O’Neal, and Drake were contacted but declined the invitation to speak.

According to Zafar, the HAA has now reached out to several people beyond the original list, including former Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79, comedian Bill Burr, and Golden Globe-winning actors George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Some candidates, like Damon and O’Neal, cited specific conflicts in declining the invitation according to Zafar.

Zafar added that the senior class committee hoped to juxtapose the “more serious” speaker selection for the University’s 2024 Commencement ceremony, Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa.

“We thought in order to try to make a good mix, assuming there’s going to be a more serious speaker — which we ended up being right on — let’s try to have A-list celebrities/entertainers on the list,” Zafar said.

Ressa’s selection drew mixed reactions from the Class of 2024, with some students contrasting the choice of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate with Tom Hanks, the Academy Award-winning actor who spoke at the 2023 Commencement ceremony.

Past Class Day speakers include U.S. President Joe Biden, who spoke in 2017, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07, and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore ’69.

Zafar said he hopes the HAA can secure a speaker within the next five days, but the College spokesperson did not offer a specific timeline for the process.

Correction: May 10, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Harvard Alumni Association contacted all the candidates on the Senior Class Committee’s inital speaker list. In fact, the HAA did not contact every candidate on the initial list.

—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at azusa.lippit@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @azusalippit or on Threads @azusalippit.

—Staff writer Cam N. Srivastava can be reached at cam.srivastava@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @camsrivastava.

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