Denzel Washington has already played several roles on the University of Pennsylvania's campus. The movie star has been the dad who helped his son Malcolm, now a sophomore, move into his dorm room. He's been a fan in the stands of Malcolm's basketball games.
And this May, Washington will play a new part at Penn: commencement speaker.
"We have not had a speaker from theater or film in a number of years, so Mr. Washington was interesting for that," says Leslie Laird Kruhly, secretary of the university. "There's great support in particular for a number of his socially conscious roles...[and] the response has been very, very positive."
Washington is just one in a star-studded stable of commencement speakers recruited for spring graduation ceremonies at schools nationwide. Celebrities, politicians, and high-powered executives have been tapped to inspire the class of 2011 as students commence life after college.
[See which famous commencement speakers will be at schools near you this year.]
"Name recognition is important," Laird Kruhly says. "If you give [students] someone, no matter how fabulous, that no one's ever heard of, that's bound to be less popular."
Chosen speakers at some schools are inherently inspirational, others prominent. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel will address seniors at Washington University in St. Louis May 20, for instance; President Barack Obama is slated for speeches at Miami-Dade College April 29 and the United States Coast Guard Academy on May 18.
Some schools have tapped into alumni networks, landing notable graduates like Stephen Colbert, who will speak at his alma mater, Northwestern University, on June 17, and Brooke Shields, a Princeton University graduate who will deliver the school's Class Day address on May 30.
Other institutions will honor professional success. Female students at Barnard College, for instance, will hear from Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, on May 17. The following day, graduating seniors at nearby New York University will be addressed by former President Bill Clinton, who is also slated to deliver the commencement address at Walden University in Minneapolis on July 30.
For some schools, finding candidates who exemplify an institutional mission is imperative. Babson College, a small school in Massachusetts that stresses its proclivity for entrepreneurship, will hear from Twitter cofounder Biz Stone on May 14.
"I look at some of my peer institutions [that] say, 'Let's really focus on the rock star kind of thing,'" says Babson's college president Leonard Schlesinger. "We find people that are linked to what we do, who actually care about what we do."
[See how the job outlook has improved for this year's college graduates.]
At Penn, the chosen speaker must be a demonstrated elite in his or her chosen field who has made considerable contributions, says the university secretary, Laird Kruhly. Selection is a painstaking process that often takes more than a year to complete—and isn't always universally popular. (U2's Bono, a "groundbreaking" choice in 2004, drew criticism from some alumni in the days before the musician became publicly involved in humanitarian efforts, she says.) Thus, the overwhelmingly positive response Washington has drawn this year comes as a relief for her office.
"The guiding rule is, no matter who you choose or whatever institution you're in, somebody's not going to like it," Laird Kruhly says. "We stand by our choices no matter what the public response is, but it certainly is a lot more fun and a lot easier when they're well received."
Some negative fervor has been brewing at The Ohio State University, where the selection of Speaker of the House and Ohio native John Boehner triggered a seemingly instantaneous backlash from some students on campus, according to senior Julie Golem. A self-proclaimed political neutral, Golem says the negativity—which has manifested in a protest via Facebook—is disheartening.
"We worked four years for this degree," Golem says. "Even if you're very into politics, you shouldn't let someone ruin your day like that."