Dempsey, Graduate School '84, is the highest ranking military officer in the United States. Prior to becoming charmain of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dempsey also served as Chief of Staff of the Army and Commanding General to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. He holds two Defense Distinguished Service Medals, four Army Distinguished Service Medals, three Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars with Valor and one Defense Superior Service Medal.

“I call myself the military’s highest-ranking student when people ask me my duty description. Since I’ve become chairman—even way before that—I’ve been on what I call a personal campaign of learning,” Dempsey said in a Duke News press release. “I try to reach out to industry, to academia, to nonprofits, to anybody I can, to hear their perspectives so that our armed forces can benefit from their insights."

Dempsey spoke in Page Auditorium to Duke students about a revised military strategy Jan. 2012. He received a mater's in English while at Duke and credited his studies with building his confidence, pushing him to seek new ideas and improving his ability to communicate persuasively during his talk.

“My time at Duke was an intellectual oasis after a long march," Dempsey said in the press release. "It allowed me time to broaden my perspective from the confines of military life and open it to another world, full of new ideas, viewpoints, issues and stories which helped me develop.”

President Richard Brodhead said there are three traits he looks for when choosing a commencement speaker—someone who can show how to use their education to do something important in the world, has a Duke connection and is a good public speaker.

"He could have had success in the private sector and he chose to go into the public sector," Brodhead said, adding that Dempsey's career path is representative of knowledge in the service of society.

Brodhead said Dempsey was his first choice as commencement speaker and that he instantly accepted the offer.

Each year, the commencement speaker earns an honorary degree. Dempsey, however, has declined the degree, stating that he is not accepting any more awards while in his role of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brodhead said.

A group of student leaders assisted in the search for the commencement speaker. Senior Jacob Robinson, a member of the search committee and vice president of internal affairs at Duke University Union, said the group pitched ideas via email during the Fall and then met twice to narrow the list. When they had picked 10, the students presented the list of candidates over to Brodhead.

Robinson said that Dempsey was not in this year's list, but that many commencement speakers are chosen from previous years' lists, as was the case with the Class of 2013's commencement speaker Melinda Gates, Trinity '86 and Fuqua '87.

"[Dempsey] represents how a liberal arts education equips us to work in fields we didn't expect," Robinson said.