Oprah Winfrey Named Commencement Speaker

The media entrepreneur and talk-show host will deliver the afternoon address on May 30.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, the first African-American woman to become a billionaire, has built an empire with her oratorical gifts and ability to engage with people of all ranks and backgrounds. Now she will share words of wisdom with the Class of 2013 and other Harvard graduates, their families, and alumni by serving as principal speaker at Harvard’s 362nd Commencement, the University announced today. [Update May 30, 2013: Full coverage of Harvard's 362nd Commencement is available.]

“I was taught to read at an early age,” Winfrey told the Academy of Achievement in 2011. “By the time I was three, I was reciting speeches in the church. They'd put me up on the program, and say, ‘Little Mistress Winfrey will render a recitation.’”

In what was called “a transformative moment for the television business” by The New York Times, Winfrey made history in May 2011 by ending the Emmy Award-winning Oprah Winfrey Show to start her own cable channel (OWN, short for the Oprah Winfrey Network)—the first time a talk-show host has created an entire channel. “I’m not going away, I’m just changing,” she said to the Times. “I’m just creating another platform for myself, which eventually will be wider and broader than what I have now.” In January 2013, for example, OWN received widespread attention when Lance Armstrong chose Winfrey as his confidant for a confessional interview about his long-denied use of performance-enhancing drugs. (Winfrey’s original, nationally syndicated show ran for 24 seasons, tackling topics such as divorce, sexual abuse, and philanthropic issues, and featuring exclusive interviews with celebrities and world leaders alike. It drew an audience of more than 40 million viewers a week in the United States and reached 150 countries around the world.)

Carl F. Muller ’73, J.D.-M.B.A. ’76, president of the Harvard Alumni Association, called Winfrey an “inspiration to people around the world who care about opening minds and serving the common good.” Her private foundation has awarded hundreds of grants to organizations that support education and the empowerment of women, children, and families around the globe.  The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa—an independent school dedicated to educating girls from all nine of South African’s provinces—recently graduated its second class of young women, all of whom plan to attend college.

“Oprah’s journey from her grandmother’s Mississippi farm to becoming one of the world’s most admired women is one of the great American success stories,” said President Drew Faust in a press release. “She has used her extraordinary influence and reach as a force for good in the world, with a constant focus on the importance of educational opportunity and the virtues of serving others.”  

Winfrey will speak on May 30 during Commencement day’s Afternoon Exercises, which serve as the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association. The exercises will take place in the Tercentenary Theatre of Harvard Yard, between Memorial Church and Widener Library.


Also speaking during Commencement week are:

  • Phi Beta Kappa orator Linda Greenhouse ’68, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for her Supreme Court coverage in The New York Times, now Knight Distinguished Journalist in residence and Goldstein lecturer in law at Yale, and the 2006 Radcliffe Institute Medalist; and poet August Kleinzahler, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Sleeping it Off in Rapid City. The honor society’s Literary Exercises, which are open to the public, will take place on Tuesday, May 28, in Sanders Theatre, beginning at 11 a.m.
  • Harvard Kennedy School guest Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M. ’75, L.H.D. ’01, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an expert on violence, children, and community redevelopment. He will deliver the school’s 2013 Graduation Address to imminent graduates and their families on Wednesday afternoon, May 29.
  • Radcliffe Medalist Jane Alexander, the distinguished actress who was the first working artist to chair the National Endowment for the Arts (1993-1997). She is being honored for “the courage she has shown as an actor and as a champion for the arts,” thereby “significantly and positively” influencing society. Alexander will receive the medal and deliver her address following the annual Radcliffe Day lunch.


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