I am proud to be a Colonial today.
That’s because Tim Cook, the chief executive officer of the largest publicly traded corporation in the world, will speak at Commencement on the National Mall, GW announced Wednesday night.
This is the second Commencement address he’s ever given – and the last one was to Auburn University, his alma mater.
The social media reaction to the announcement has been overwhelmingly laudatory for a number of reasons. For me, there’s one reason in particular that stands out: Cook is openly gay, which he publicly disclosed in October, making him the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to do so.
While not necessarily important to everyone, I am thrilled he is speaking because his honesty about his sexual orientation resonates with me: Four years ago, when I was a graduating from high school, same-sex marriage was only legal in five states and the District. And four years ago, I was only out as a gay man to a handful of family members and close friends.
Now, I regularly write about gay issues in a transparent fashion for multiple news organizations. And on May 17, Cook will deliver an address on the National Mall, yards away from where the Supreme Court’s nine justices will draft decisions on the same-sex marriage cases they’ve deliberated this term.
A lot changes in four years. It has for me, at least – and Cook’s speech will surely be a fitting capstone.
The fact that GW can boast what is likely its first openly gay Commencement speaker at a time of intense campus activism and prominence for our gay community is just one reason it’s fitting he’s our pick.
But even when you set Cook’s sexual orientation aside, GW alumni have still expressed jealousy that he wasn’t their Commencement speaker.
Here’s why his remarks are so highly anticipated: Cook is exactly the type of person GW students have been asking for.
Since I’ve been a student here, my classmates and I have bemoaned the narrow perception of this University. We’ve called for GW to be more than just a school that’s known for its proximity to the White House.
“Give us something more than politicians and famous journalists,” so many of us have pleaded, after spending our four years hearing from the likes of Anderson Cooper, Antonin Scalia and Hillary Clinton.
It’s not that we’re tired of hearing from the D.C.-based celebrities who enticed us to enroll here in the first place. It’s that a Commencement speaker should be someone special – someone who might not hail from this city, whom GW doesn’t have access to on any old Tuesday after classes. That’s what Cook can provide graduates, our guests and those who watch his speech after the fact on YouTube.
Granted, this isn’t the first year GW has gone a bit outside the box for Commencement. After a long string of more traditional speakers – from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to First Lady Michelle Obama to Brian Williams – the University tapped actress Kerry Washington and celebrity chef José Andrés, clearly a divergence.
But for each of the latter two, it seemed like GW had to make excuses for failing to recruit a member of the D.C. elite. For example, Washington isn’t just an actress: She’s an actress, alumna and a star of a political drama. (Emphasis on the word “political.”)
And Andrés might stir up paella for a living – but don’t forget about all his humanitarian work and his socially conscious spirit, GW officials seemed to say.
With Cook as a Commencement speaker, GW needs to add no footnote or sub-headline. His place as a behemoth in the tech industry and the leader of a company that makes products nearly every 2015 graduate owns speaks for itself.
That’s exactly the type of speaker a university of this caliber has the ability to recruit, so it’s great to see GW flex its muscles. But what’s more, the University clearly kept in mind the student body’s desire for a speaker who represents social progress – even if Cook doesn’t explicitly mention it in his address.
And – especially now that it’s my own graduation we’re talking about – I’m glad they did.
Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist.