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University shows recent trend toward choosing alumni as commencement speakers

When Tim Cook, Fuqua ’88, took the stage Sunday to tell graduates to be “fearless,” he joined a long list of Duke commencement speakers that includes former U.S. presidents, broadcast journalists, philanthropists, Nobel Peace Prize winners and novelists.

What do Duke's commencement speakers have in common? In recent years, they've largely been alumni. 

Looking at the commencement speakers the University chose from 1987 to 2017 shows that while some speakers throughout the last thirty years were alumni or had another tie to the school, the percentage of speakers being alumni has greatly increased in the last seven years. 

“Duke alumni as speakers may be a trend and even a pattern but it’s not a requirement by any means,” wrote Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, in an email.

From 1987 to 2018, a total of nine commencement speakers have been Duke alumni—with five of them coming in the last seven years. Including John Chambers, who gave the speech in 2011 and who attended but did not graduate, would bring the total count of speakers who attended Duke to 10 for the last 30 years. Since 2013, all but one speaker has earned a Duke degree. 

The one who did not graduate from Duke? Men's basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who spoke in 2016.

Before 2013, only four out of 25 speakers had earned Duke degrees. This excludes the numerous speakers who were given honorary degrees from Duke. It’s important to note, also, that many speakers throughout the last 30 years have had ties to Duke that did not include graduating from the University, aside from Krzyzewski's obvious Duke connection. 

John Hope Franklin, James B. Duke professor emeritus of history and a renowned scholar, delivered the address in 2006.

When Tom Wolfe delivered the address in 2002, he was speaking to a class of graduates that included his daughter. The recently-deceased journalist would later pen a novel in 2004 that he denied was based entirely off of Duke, despite striking similarities in the architecture and basketball obsession.

David Gergen, who was the commencement speaker for the class of 1995, did not graduate from Duke but is related to the University on multiple fronts. The former presidential adviser was a faculty member in the Sanford School of Public Policy in the 1990’s and served on the University’s Board of Trustees. 

He also grew up in Durham, as his father was a professor in the mathematics department for more than 30 years, and his son, Christopher Gergen, graduated from Duke in 1993 and became an Innovation and Entrepreneurship fellow at Duke. Three generations of Duke instructors, but the Gergen that gave the speech was not an alumnus. 

The Duke alumni who have delivered the address in the last thirty years have represented a wide variety of fields and Duke experiences. 

Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff gave the 1994 speech. Woodruff was a 1968 graduate of Trinity College, and she served on Duke’s Board of Trustees. Elizabeth Dole graduated from the Women’s College in 1958 and delivered the speech to the class of 2000. Dole served in the cabinets of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and is married to 1996 Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole.

Ricardo Lagos, who was president of Chile at the time, gave the 2005 address. Lagos earned his master of arts in 1963 and Ph.D. in 1966 from the Graduate School. Richard Wagoner, Jr., Trinity '75, was CEO and chair of General Motors when he delivered the 2007 address.

Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco, kicked off the recent trend of former Duke students as Commencement speakers when he gave the address in 2011. Although he did not graduate from Duke, he attended the Pratt School of Engineering as an undergraduate before graduating from West Virginia University. 

With Cook delivering the 2018 commencement address, the last six speakers have either been alumni or current employees. Philanthropist Melinda French Gates, Trinity ’86 and Fuqua ’87, delivered the 2013 address, followed in 2014 by Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who received his master’s degree in English from Duke in 1984. The class of 2015 heard from Paul Farmer, Trinity ’82 and co-founder of Partners in Health, and the 2016 address was given by then-Board Chair David Rubenstein, Trinity '70.

It is likely months before the Class of 2019’s speaker is announced. If it is a Duke alum, that will bring the total to the last six out of seven speakers.

“The university always seeks a commencement speaker who has something meaningful say, in an engaging and memorable way, and who will share the excitement of being with Duke students and families on this special day,” Schoenfeld wrote.

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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