Colleges to honor 6 Biden cabinet members (and counting) at 2021 commencements

Several universities praised their speakers as the first person of their race, gender, or sexual orientation to hold a specific government position.

These universities are some of the earliest in the nation to announce their high-level commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.

More than a month before graduation season, one thing is clear: President Joe Biden’s Cabinet will be busy accepting honors and delivering speeches to the class of 2021.

Colleges and universities have so far announced six Cabinet-level speakers and honorees, and they, much like the Biden Administration, have announced these people first with their demographic attributes, and second with their accomplishments.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who will address graduates of the Harvard Kennedy School, was praised by Dean Doug Elmendorf as “the youngest Cabinet member in the Biden administration, and the first openly gay person in a U.S. president’s Cabinet.” (Buttigieg is not the first openly gay Cabinet official; that title belongs to Richard Grenell, who served as the Acting Director of National Security under President Donald Trump, though he was never confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge will speak at Cleveland State University’s commencement, as University president Harlan Sands shared with Much like her colleagues speaking elsewhere, Fudge has been identified by the school as achieving a milestone for diversity in government: The school’s announcement of her swearing in began by hailing her as “the first woman to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development in more than 40 years” and “the second Black woman to lead the department.”

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In the announcement, UPenn hails her as “the first woman to hold this [Treasury Secretary] position,” and “also the first woman Chair of the Federal Reserve Board.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona will speak virtually to graduates of his alma mater, the University of Connecticut, in early May, as reported by the Hartford Courant

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III will speak to Florida A&M University’s graduates in Tallahassee, where he will commission 17 new officers from the school’s ROTC program, as reported by the Tallahassee Democrat.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will deliver the commencement address to Columbia Law School graduates. Blinken, not a demographic “first,” was hailed by Dean Gillian Lester for “having reached the highest levels of government service” and for “being instrumental in defining U.S. foreign policy for decades.”

In 2017, the Trump Cabinet did not receive nearly so warm a welcome on campuses as the one Biden officials now enjoy. Around 100 people walked out of Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at Notre Dame, according to a CNN estimate, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to Bethune-Cookman University’s graduates while protesters among the students sought to drown out her speech, as audible in this CNN recording. Other Trump officials spoke at military academies: Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao spoke to graduates at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly addressed the Coast Guard Academy, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis spoke to cadets at West Point. 

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At the time of publication, the only high-profile Republican figure Campus Reform could identify to have been announced as a commencement speaker is former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will speak to Regent University, a small Christian college in Virginia.

Speakers from the Biden administration are some of the first big-name speakers to be announced by colleges and universities. Former President Barack Obama, who spoke virtually to graduates via a YouTube event last year, has not yet made public any plans for this season. Nor has Hillary Clinton, a regular on the commencement circuit who, last year, delivered remarks to the class of 2020 on an iHeartRadio podcast. 

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Other members of the administration’s top brass who have recently made headlines, including Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, have not yet announced plans to speak to the class of 2021. Nor has First Lady Jill Biden, an educator who has championed the cause of community colleges as First Lady.

As graduation season draws closer, Campus Reform will continue to follow more major speaker announcements involving the Biden administration.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito