Pomona College announced Walter Isaacson as the speaker for its 120th Commencement, held May 19.
The choice was decided by the Honorary Degrees Committee, consisting of faculty and trustees, along with the junior and senior class presidents.
Isaacson, previous editor of TIME and CEO of CNN, most recently received media attention for his biography of Steve Jobs.
“He was the authorized biographer. He had spent a lot of time with Steve Jobs in the couple of years before he died, so Walter Isaacson probably knows more about him than anyone,” Pomona President David Oxtoby said.
For Blake Gilmore PO ’14, Isaacson took a unique approach to the Jobs narrative.
“Steve Jobs’s biography was exquisite,” Gilmore said. “The thing that struck me was the way he talked about how Steve Jobs viewed death and how comfortable he was with uncertainty, and that’s just something that few people had talked about in Jobs.”
His contributions are not limited to the Jobs biography, however.
“He’s written other books, like the biography of Benjamin Franklin and major intellectual contributions in those areas—head of the Aspen Institute, which is a think tank which focuses on big issues in the world, and before that he was a publisher of a major news magazine,” Oxtoby said. “He knows a lot about international issues. He’s a very thoughtful person on big issues in the world these days.”
Oxtoby believes that Isaacson’s experiences in numerous fields will lead to an enriched perspective in his speech.
“Walter himself is an example of someone who has changed careers a number of times and done all sorts of things and has been a really thoughtful observer of the world, and so I hope he’ll pass on some observations about that,” Oxtoby said.
Hunter Dukes PO ’13 hopes that Isaacson’s history as a biographer will allow him to give fitting advice for the graduating seniors.
“I think it is timely to have a biographer speak. We are at a time in our lives when it has never been easier to change our stories, to find new ways of unifying our identity, of understanding what has happened during these last four years, and what we want to expect from the years ahead,” Dukes said. “From what I understand about the creation of biography, or life writing, as it’s called, it is a very similar process. The biographer is presented with the dis-unified, contradictory multitudes of a life and is charged with forging a coherent, encompassing narrative.”
According to Oxtoby, notable speakers from the past include many household names, along with less well-known, but just as provocative, speakers.
“We’ve had Secretary [of Energy Steven] Chu, someone who has a Ph.D. and a Nobel Prize in science who then goes into the government because he cares about energy and those issues,” Oxtoby said. “That was a great speech, from someone who can connect the academic world with all of the big issues in the country and in the world.”
Another notable speaker was John Payton PO ’73.
“He was a person who argued the University of Michigan affirmative action case. He was one of the people developing the strategy in arguing that case in front of the Supreme Court,” Oxtoby said. “He wasn’t a household name that everyone knew about, but, in my view, he gave probably the most inspiring graduation speech that I’ve ever heard. As a matter of fact, he got a standing ovation, which is very rare.”
Oxtoby explained the criteria the Honorary Degrees Committee uses to select the speakers:
“We’re looking for people who are really accomplished and who have some link to Pomona, an extra reason that they might come, because we don’t pay an honorarium,” Oxtoby said. “There are some places who pay speakers to appear at graduation, but we don’t do that.”
Instead, Oxtoby said that the speakers are intrinsically motivated to come.
“I think they understand the type of college we are, the type of education we have, and students and so forth,” Oxtoby said. “It is an honor to speak at a graduation.”