Petraeus GS ’85: ‘True thrill’ to deliver Baccalaureate address
Petraeus currently serves as head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in 20 countries throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and East Africa. Before his appointment to the position in October 2008, Petraeus served for 19 months as the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
“I was absolutely delighted to be invited,” Petraeus said in an e-mail to The Daily Princetonian. “I remain very grateful for the opportunity to have studied at Princeton, and the prospect of returning to do the Baccalaureate address is a true thrill.”
Petraeus earned a master’s in public affairs and a Ph.D. from the Wilson School in 1985 and 1987, respectively.
“He represents the very finest in military service in the U.S.,” President Tilghman said. “What he has done to reduce the violence in Iraq is miraculous.”
She added that she was surprised by his prompt reply last week.
“With asking people who are so busy, they have to consult their schedule, and it can take from a week to months to confirm,” Tilghman said. “I contacted him and got a response back in 20 minutes. I think he has a very deep affection for Princeton.”
Class of 2009 president Grant Bermann said he was excited when he learned of the selection of Petraeus last week.
“He’s obviously done a lot for his country,” Bermann said. “He exemplifies some of the values that Princeton hopes to instill in its students, and military service isn’t the only way to serve, but it’s an important one.”
Petraeus will join news anchor Katie Couric, the Class Day speaker, in this year’s Commencement festivities.
Baccalaureate, an interfaith service that includes readings from various religious traditions, is one of the University’s oldest traditions, dating back to 1760. Until 1972, the Baccalaureate address was delivered by the University president. Since then, speakers have been chosen by the president after discussion with class leaders and other administrators.
Recent speakers include philanthropist Paul Farmer in 2008, professor emeritus John Fleming GS ’63 in 2007 and humorist David Sedaris in 2006.
In the nation’s service
A native of Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., Petraeus is the son of an American mother and a Dutch father. His neighbors called him “Peaches” in reference to his frequently mispronounced name, and the nickname carried over to his time in college.
Petraeus attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he played soccer and was a member of the ski team and a cadet captain on the brigade staff. He graduated in the top 5 percent of his class and married Holly Knowlton two months after graduation. They have two grown children.
In 1974, Petraeus was commissioned in the infantry and has held numerous positions in the military ever since.
He went on to serve as an international relations professor at his alma mater and completed a fellowship at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
In his 328-page Wilson School doctoral dissertation, titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era,” Petraeus examined how the Vietnam War influenced military thinking about the use of force.
Many students said that they were pleased with the selection.
“I think he has a love for Princeton as well as what it does for the country as well,” said Maj. Matt Zais, a Wilson School Ph.D. candidate who currently teaches at West Point and served under Petraeus from 2003 to 2004 in the 101st Airborne Division. “He has a desire to show that soldiers can also be scholars as well.”
“I think Gen. Petraeus greatly values the role that American and international student graduates will play,” Zais added. “He’s very proud of being from [Princeton] and values bridging this role between the military and academic institutions.”
Wesley Morgan ’11, who spent five weeks in Iraq with Petraeus in 2007 and was embedded in Iraq last fall studying the actions of different military units, described Petraeus as “intense” and said he admired the general’s concern for junior officers.
“He’s an incredibly intense guy intellectually,” Morgan said. “He makes a habit of looking out for people far, far below him and giving them opportunities.”
Andrew Malcolm ’09 said he was thrilled by the selection of Petraeus.
“I think he’s a genuine American hero,” Malcolm said. “He’s one of the most prominent, most successful Princeton alumni who are serving our country today, and I think he’s going to be a great speaker.”
Malcolm added that he hoped Petraeus would speak about Iraq in his speech.
“Gen. Petraeus did something very [few] people thought possible, which was turn Iraq around from the beginning of 2007 to 2008 … He did something no one really thought possible, and I hope he tells us more about it,” Malcolm said.
Though many students said they were impressed with his handling of the conflict in Iraq, some added that his involvement was a cause for concern.
“I’m not displeased, but my only reservation was that he was involved with the whole Iraq war process,” Nashelly Magallanes ’09 said.
But Parker Henritze ’09 called Petraeus “iconic” and said she believed Petraeus would be a good balance to Couric.
“I think it’s two varied perspectives on the world,” Henritze said. “I think it’s kind of a good balance: the reporter and then the newsmaker.”
Staff writer Omar Carrillo contributed reporting.