Denzel Washington to speak at Penn commencement

Posted: March 22, 2011

Denzel Washington, winner of two Academy Awards and a 2010 Tony Award, will deliver the commencement address to this year's graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania.

Washington, whose son Malcolm is a sophomore at the Ivy League school, will speak to about 5,000 graduates on May 16. He also will receive an honorary doctor of arts degree from the university.

Washington has starred in two movies with major regional components. He played a homophobic lawyer who represents the Tom Hanks' HIV-stricken character in Philadelphia (1993). He returned three years later to portray a city police detective in the supernatural thriller, Fallen (1996).

The 56-year-old actor has also played civil rights activists Malcolm X and Steve Biko, boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, and poet Melvin Tolson. He was awarded Oscars for best supporting role in Glory (1993) and best actor in Training Day (2001). Most recently, he won the Tony for best leading actor in a play in 2010 for his role in Fences.

During the commencement ceremony, the school's 255th, Penn will also bestow honorary degrees to medical sociologist Renee C. Fox; Celtel founder Mo Ibrahim; New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof; president of social investing consultants TripleEdge, Sheryl WuDunn; writer Joyce Carol Oates; and 2010 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Ei-ichi Negishi.

"Every year we try to get 'a class' of honorary degree recipients," said Leslie Laird Kruhly, the Secretary of the University. "We think we did well this year."

Faculty, alumni, students and staff all contributed to the nomination process. The school's board of trustees decided on the finalists.

What were they looking for in a commencement speaker?

"We wanted someone at the absolute top of their field who has done notable work and provides an example to our students," Kruhly said. "We also wanted someone who would be fabulous delivering remarks on a football field."

Last year, Jon Huntsman, Ambassador to China and Penn graduate headlined the commencement ceremony.

Other Penn speakers have included:

Eric E. Schmidt of Google (2009)

Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of New York (2008)

James A. Baker, III, former U.S. Secretary of State (2007)

Jodie Foster, actress and director (2006)

Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize recipient (2005)

Bono, U2 front man and cofounder, DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) (2004)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize (2003)

Jim Lehrer, anchor, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (2002)

John McCain, United States Senator, Arizona (2001)

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or

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