Commencement speaker lacks broad approval

by Brianna Gurciullo

Correction appended

Two-thirds of students are unhappy or indifferent toward the selection of actress and alumna Kerry Washington as the Commencement speaker this May, according to an informal survey of 190 students.

Washington, who stars in ABC’s “Scandal” and recently appeared in the Academy Award-winning film “Django Unchained,” is a 1998 alumna and a former member of the Board of Trustees. She will accept an honorary degree before a 20,000-person crowd May 19.

One-third of respondents said they felt “indifferent” toward Washington, who was announced Monday – nearly the same percentage of students who said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the pick.

Washington was a leader in the Department of Theatre and Dance during her time at GW, crafting her own major in performance studies and maintaining ties with her alma mater as she rose to fame, her former professor said.

“Kerry has often said that she particularly appreciated being at GW because she was able to pursue other academic and creative interests along with her passion for theater, dance and music,” said Leslie Jacobson, a professor of theater who chaired the dance and theater department from 1995 to 2008.

Washington is the first GW graduate to keynote Commencement in at least six years, though last year’s speaker, award-winning journalist Brian Williams, also took classes at GW.

The Bronx, N.Y. native earned the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture for her performance in “Ray.” She shared the screen with actor and musician Jamie Foxx in both “Django Unchained” and “Ray.”

Senior Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Students Peter Konwerski worked closely with Washington when she was a member of the Colonial Cabinet in 1995. She was also a member of house staff in Thurston Hall.

“As a student leader, she was a well-respected, talented member of the ensemble, whether performing in CI skits or capably working as a student ambassador, welcoming new students and their families to our campus community,” he said.

Washington now sits on President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and is part of a group of advisers for V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women.

She also spoke at last year’s Democratic National Convention, urging fellow Obama supporters to stand up and preserve their rights.

“I think that our [theater, dance and art] students will feel special pride at having such a talented, articulate artist/advocate speaking at graduation,” Jacobson said.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent off the graduating class of 2011, first lady Michelle Obama headlined the event in 2010 and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel spoke in 2009.

Julie Alderman, Aaron Goodtree, Oskar Sharman and Robert Todaro contributed to this report.

This article was updated March 21, 2013 to reflect the following;
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the show "Scandal" appears on NBC. It appears on ABC. A previous version also misspelled 'Django Unchained."

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