Barbara Walters named Class Day speaker

Journalist Barbara Walters, shown interviewing former President and First Lady Gerald and Betty Ford, will speak at this year’s Class Day.
Journalist Barbara Walters, shown interviewing former President and First Lady Gerald and Betty Ford, will speak at this year’s Class Day. Photo by Creative Commons.

When seniors don festive Class Day hats and march onto Old Campus on May 20, they will find Barbara Walters, Emmy-winning television host and journalist, sitting on stage.

In an early Monday morning email to the senior class, Kevin Adkisson ’12 and Ben Schenkel ’12, senior class secretary and treasurer, respectively, announced that Walters will speak at Class Day 2012. Adkisson told the News Sunday night that he thinks Walters’ experience as a leading journalist gives her insights not heard at recent Class Days.

“We haven’t had someone from journalism for a few years, and we certainly haven’t had a woman in almost a decade,” Adkisson said. “So we were looking for people, like Walters, who can inspire us, once they reach a point in their field where they are undeniably the best.”

Previous Class Day speakers have included actor Tom Hanks, President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, political pundit Christopher Buckley ’75 and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Walters is the first female Class Day speaker since 2005, when District of Columbia congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton GRD ’63 LAW ’64 gave the address. While Adkisson and Schenkel said they considered men and women in their search, they said the previous lack of diversity influenced their decision to pick Walters.

“We wanted a female first and foremost, then we assembled a very large list of women leaders in every area,” Adkisson said. “From that list, we thought, ‘who would the class be most interested in hearing from?’ ”

Adkisson said he and Schenkel began discussing potential speakers in the summer of 2011 and compiled a list of roughly 100 names. While Adkisson and Schenkel were ultimately responsible for choosing the speaker, both said Penelope Laurans, special advisor to University President Richard Levin and Jonathan Edwards college master, helped them consider candidates and reach out to Walters through the University President’s Office. Laurans said Walters’ career included a collection of interviews that “few, if any, can match.”

“She is unique — because of the time in which she lived, and the way she made use of opportunities during that time, she interviewed nearly every influential person in the world,” Laurans said. “There is unlikely to be anyone quite like her again.”

The announcement of the Class Day speaker came later than in past years — excepting the announcement of Tony Blair 11 days before he spoke at Class Day 2008 — but Laurans, Adkisson and Schenkel declined to comment on why there was a delay.

Of seven seniors interviewed early Monday morning, four said they were excited about the choice, two said they were hoping for a more compelling speaker and one was indifferent.

Nate Schwalb ’13, who will participate in graduation ceremonies this spring but officially graduate next winter, said he appreciated having a “big name person” with strong speaking abilities.

“I think it’s appropriate to a liberal arts education because she’s someone that is intelligent [and] that has interviewed people from all walks of life in all sorts of fields,” Schwalb said.

Scarlett Lee ’12 said she had seen several of Walters’ interviews, and she thinks a majority of the senior class is familiar with her work.

But Tal Shachar ’12 said he disapproved of the choice because he thought Walters would not relate to a younger generation.

“I recognize she’s done some amazing things and broken many barriers, [but] to me, she’s not a very compelling speaker,” he said. “It would have been interesting to hear someone with a fresher, younger take on the world today, someone who comes from an era that is dealing with our problems.”

Walters gave the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College in 2001.

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