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Revisiting Duke’s commencement speakers from the last decade

<p>Apple CEO Tim Cook, Fuqua '88, was Duke's commencement speaker in 2018.</p>

Apple CEO Tim Cook, Fuqua '88, was Duke's commencement speaker in 2018.

Before John Legend takes the stage at Wallace Wade Stadium on Sunday, we’re revisiting Duke’s commencement speakers from the last decade.

Most speakers have had ties to Duke. Since 2011, five commencement speakers were current or former members of the Board of Trustees. Eight speakers were former Duke students, and seven had earned at least one degree from the University. Legend is one of three speakers that did not attend Duke, and one of two with no affiliation to Duke. 



2011 - John T. Chambers

Chambers, then-CEO of Cisco, addressed graduates on May 14, 2011. He attended Duke for two years before transferring to West Virginia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a J.D. He received an honorary degree during the 2011 ceremony.

2012 - Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria, a journalist, delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2012 before receiving an honorary degree. Zakaria earned his undergraduate degree from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University.

2013 - Melinda French Gates

Gates, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, emphasized the importance of brotherhood in her commencement speech. She graduated from Trinity College of Arts and Sciences in 1986, earned her MBA from the Fuqua School of Business in 1987 and earned an honorary degree at the 2013 commencement. In addition to serving on the Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2003, Gates and her husband gifted funds for the French Family Science Center and the University Scholars Program.

2014 - Martin E. Dempsey

Dempsey, a retired Army general, was the chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of his speech. He declined an honorary degree, which was typically awarded to commencement speakers at that time, because of his position. He earned an M.A. in English from Duke in 1984.

2015 - Paul Farmer

Farmer, who graduated from the University in 1982, is the co-founder of non-profit Partners in Health, which has an undergraduate club at Duke. In his speech, he encouraged graduates to be open to “serendipity and disappointments.” He has been on the Board of Trustees since 2009.

2016 - Mike Krzyzewski

The Class of 2016 got their sendoff from Coach K, whose background in sports would “provide another unique perspective” to commencement, according to Richard Brodhead, the University President at the time. Krzyzewski played basketball at West Point and coached their men’s team before stepping into the heat coaching job at Duke in 1980.

2017 - David M. Rubenstein

Rubenstein graduated from Trinity College of Arts and Sciences in 1970, where he was selected to Phi Beta Kappa, a prestigious academic honor society. He served as the chair of the Board of Trustees from 2013 to 2017. Rubenstein has donated millions to the University and is the namesake of Rubenstein Library and the Rubenstein Scholars Program for first-generation, low-income students.

2018 - Tim Cook

Cook, the current Chief Executive Officer of Apple, has served on the Board of Trustees since 2015. He attended the Fuqua School, where he graduated in the top 10% of his class in 1988.

2019 - Lisa Borders

Borders, a current trustee and the former president and CEO of women’s advocacy organization TIME’S UP, graduated from Trinity College of Arts and Sciences in 1979. Borders served as president of the WNBA for three seasons, from 2016 to 2018. 

2020 - Ken Jeong

Jeong, who is an actor, comedian and physician, graduated from Duke in 1990 before pursuing a medical degree at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Last year, Jeong told The Chronicle that he got his start in acting at Duke. 

2021 - John Legend

Legend is a singer, songwriter, philanthropist and advocate for criminal justice reform. President Vincent Price said in a release that the University was thrilled to have Legend serve as the 2021 commencement speaker. Legend will receive an honorary degree at the ceremony.


Nadia Bey | Managing Editor

Nadia Bey is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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