The senior class presidents announced this week that Stanford’s 2012 Commencement speaker will be Newark Mayor Cory Booker ’91 M.A. ’92. Although many of the responses from members of the Class of 2012 and others have been positive, there has also been a vocal sense of disappointment at the selection of Mayor Booker. Anecdotally, at least, there is a feeling that this year’s Commencement speaker is “just” the mayor of Newark.
There are perhaps two major reasons for this feeling. The first is that Booker is not as widely known or well recognized as other Commencement speakers Stanford has had, from Steve Jobs (2005) to Oprah Winfrey (2008) to last year’s Felipe Calderón, president of Mexico. But once one looks past this name recognition, it is clear that Mayor Booker is a strong selection. He has a variety of distinguished accomplishments–he played football for Stanford, won a Rhodes scholarship, attended Yale Law School, and is now serving a second term in a very challenging job as mayor of Newark. Those still doubting the import of Mayor Booker need look no further than the 2011 “TIME 100,” a listing by the magazine of the most influential people in the world. Mayor Booker is in impressive company with a glowing write-up by none other than Ms. Winfrey.
The second concern is that Mayor Booker is not unknown to this campus; he has spoken on a variety of occasions, most recently participating in the 2011 Reunion Homecoming Roundtable at Stanford on redefining K-12 education in the United States. This year’s seniors had the chance to see him lecture during their freshman year as part of the Haas Center’s Voices in Public Service Leadership series. This concern is somewhat more understandable. Many seniors want their Commencement speaker to be someone momentous, someone who they may never have the chance to hear address them in person again. Viewed through this lens, having Cory Booker here for the second time this academic year may seem somewhat anticlimactic.
This Board, however, believes that the content of the Commencement address is far more important than the name of the speaker, or how many times he or she has spoken on campus. The members of the Class of 2012 are closing one chapter in their lives–for many, the end of their formal education–and beginning another. A Commencement speaker ought to be able to engage the class and speak to the graduates’ excitement and fears. He or she should be able to draw from his or her own struggles and accomplishments in order to impart a message about what is to come.
The hope is that Cory Booker will be able to do those things. The variety of experiences in his own life, we hope, will mean that he can relate to more than just the aspiring politicians of the Class of 2012. It helps, of course, that he is known to be an engaging public speaker with a strong sense of humor–clips of his speeches on YouTube have singularly positive comments. It helps, too, that Mayor Booker was himself sitting at Commencement not all that long ago, and that he can relate to the unquestionable impact Stanford has had on each graduating senior. Lastly, his numerous appearances at Stanford ought to be seen as a positive sign. Clearly, various members of this institution hold Mayor Booker in high esteem, and he seems to have maintained a strong connection with the Farm.
Ultimately, a “good” or “bad” Commencement speaker can only really be judged as such by the speech he or she gives. As of now, this Board feels the senior class presidents have chosen well for their class.