Penn’s 257th Commencement

Parents and supporters filling the stands cheered as sunlight caught the colorful hoods of black-robed graduates filing into Franklin Field at Penn’s 257th Commencement on May 13.

When Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., this year’s keynote speaker, walked in with Penn President Amy Gutmann, heightened applause rang through the stadium.

Gutmann conferred graduation honors on more than 5,000 students.

The real value of Penn graduates’ contributions to society lies in service to others, a Penn principle that follows the philosophy of the University’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, she said.

“There is a word for this virtuous circle of service: Citizenship,” said Gutmann. “Good citizenship encompasses every facet of life. It is an expansive engagement with others, and reflects fundamentally on who we are as people.”

Gutmann lauded Biden for his work overseeing landmark criminal justice legislation, including the 1994 crime bill’s ban on assault weapons and the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which Biden drafted. At age 29, Biden became one of the youngest people ever elected to the United States Senate.

After refusing to dole out advice because he said it would have little effect, Biden said graduating classes have no choice about the world in which they graduate.

Students are graduating into a world of seemingly overwhelming adversity, with a rampant fiscal crisis, terrorism, and climate change; the burden of improving the state of the world can cause anxiety, Biden said.

“I understand. My generation faced the same kind of adversity,” he said. When he graduated in 1968, the Vietnam War was raging and Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated. The world thought America was in decline.

“But we were confident that the naysayers were wrong,” Biden added.

Today’s graduates are entering a world of exciting changes, inspired by the revolution in communication technology and social reforms that are giving people the opportunity for equal rights and freedoms, he said.

“Don’t listen to the cynics. That’s the only piece of advice I’ll give you,” he said.

Prior to his speech, Biden received an honorary Doctor of Laws.

Other honorary degree recipients were:

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher and cultural theorist whose work on race, identity, politics and moral philosophy has helped change our understanding of human behavior; Ursula M. Burns, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation and the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 corporation; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance and a renowned development economist and economic reformer; Samuel H. Preston, Penn professor of sociology and one of the world’s foremost demographers; Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie G. Thompson, preeminent experts on ice core analysis who have shed new light on our planet’s past and its future; and James Edward West, a path-breaking electrical engineer whose co-invention of the electret microphone revolutionized the telephone and recording industries in the 20th century.

  • Text by Manasee Wagh
  • Photos by Vivek Bharathan, Steve Minicola, Scott Spitzer and Stuart A. Watson