Excited or ill? Social media watches as 2022 commencement speaker choices roll in

Tyler Perry, John Leguizamo and Ken Burns are among the popular early selections as others weigh their options.

While some of the selections for commencement speakers are in, many colleges and universities are still mulling and scrambling to find the right fit. Should they play it conservative or throw some chips down at a very different, perhaps controversial keynote who can wow a crowd? Social media is watching and waiting.

Unless they’ve spoken before, it is almost difficult to know how effective they can be until they reach that dais and begin their speech, like Fred Rogers at Dartmouth in 2002—“It’s you I like, every part of you”—or Tom Hanks at Yale in 2011. Or how over-the-top they can be, like Will Ferrell at USC in 2017.

So when Emory University announced its 2022 speaker would be actor-director-producer Tyler Perry, the Twittersphere had a field day, expressing a range of emotions:

“Really excited … So thrilled … Emory, what’s happening to you? … Has me ill … No way my school got Tyler Perry as the commencement speaker … Tyler Perry is the commencement speaker (with crying emoji) … Interesting choice. (Long long way from my graduating year when ours was Mikhail Gorbachev!) … Last year Emory’s commencement speaker was Dr. Fauci and this year it’s Tyler Perry. If that’s not a 180° turn then I don’t know what is.”

But generally, there’s been interest and curiosity about the accomplished media leader and entrepreneur who went back to school to get his GED. He will be receiving an honorary letter of doctors degree in addition to the honor of keynoting the ceremony on May 9.

“Tyler Perry is a visionary creative force—writing, directing, producing and performing in plays, films and TV shows that move, entertain and inspire,” Emory President Gregory Fenves said. “Equally impressive are his endeavors as a philanthropist, humanitarian and social justice advocate. Whether funding scholarships for talented students, covering the grocery bills of elderly Atlanta residents or supporting global disaster relief, he is renowned for creating opportunities and giving back to his community.”

But can he deliver a speech that will get graduates on their feet? We won’t know until he grabs the mic.

While there will be a lot of eyes on Perry, there may be just as many on actor John Leguizamo at Vassar College, who became the second keynote choice after ex-Director of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson withdrew his entry as commencement speaker. His involvement with detention camps at the U.S.-Mexico border did not sit well with students.

“I believe commencements should be joyous, tension-free events for graduates and their families,” Johnson said. “In my public life, I managed many difficult and contentious issues. In my private life, I do not seek to be the object of controversy or speak at a commencement where students will object to me. I continue to be grateful for all Vassar is doing to honor my late father’s legacy as a lecturer there for 37 years.”

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For those wondering about whether Leguizamo can hack it as a commencement speaker, here is one reaction from Twitter after a speech he gave at Drew University in 2018: “Leguizamo hits his first commencement speech out of the park, touching on history, family, humor & political responsibility.”

Who else is in?

A few choices are sure to get a lot more attention as the days wind down to May: Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at Regent University on May 7; former Vice President Mike Pence at Columbia International University’s graduation in South Carolina; United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden at Harvard University’s 371st ceremony on May 26.

Two other world influencers will take the stage in separate ceremonies. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization, will talk at MIT, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will speak at Southern Utah University, two years after her appearance was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Secretary Rice has spent her entire career breaking down barriers and reaching the highest level of success in both higher education and in service to our nation,” Southern Utah President Mindy Benson said. “As our 2022 graduates prepare for the next phase of their lives, I know Secretary Rice’s comments will serve as a true inspiration to them.”

Several pop culture and business icons also have been selected to speak at commencements, including:

  • Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker, at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid author and cartoonist, at the University of Maryland
  • Marc Randolph, CEO and co-founder of Netflix, at Cape Cod Community College
  • Daniel Lubetzky, founder of KIND Snacks, at High Point University
  • Reed Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, at Vanderbilt University
  • Doug Bowser, President of Nintendo of America, at University of Utah
  • Deshauna Barber, former U.S. Army Captain and Miss USA, at Norwich University

There are four prominent sports figures who will be keynoting at ceremonies, including Billie Jean King at Springfield College, former women’s soccer national coach Jill Ellis at the University of Illinois, Olympic track gold medalist Allyson Felix at the University of Southern California and Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, at Middlebury College.

Several university leaders are on tap to give speeches at other institutions, including the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s Freeman Hrabowski III at Wesleyan University, which is also honoring Gloria Steinem and Rita Moreno with degrees. Hrabowski also will be at UMBC’s ceremony, which will have Dr. Anthony Fauci as its commencement speaker.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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