Updated: Harvard Law professor, expert on race relations Kennedy ’77 to speak at Baccalaureateand Paul Phillips | Dec 7, 2015
Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy ’77 will be the speaker for the University’s 269th Baccalaureate Ceremony, the 2016 Class Council announced in an email Monday.
“I see this email from the President's office and I had no idea what it would be, and then when I opened it up and saw that it was this invitation to give the Baccalaureate address, I must say it really did bring tears to my eyes. I was deeply, deeply moved and I want very much to say something that is noteworthy for the occasion,” Kennedy said. “It was completely unexpected and I've never been more honored.”
Class of 2016 class president Justin Ziegler ’16 explained that although the Class of 2016 makes the selection for the Class of 2016 Class Day speaker, for the Baccalaureate speaker the Class of 2016 just makes recommendations, and the president of the University makes the final decision.
University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 was not available to comment before press time.
PreviousBaccalaureate speakers have included Lisa Jackson GS ’86in 2015, Chris Lu ’88 in 2014 and Ben Bernanke in 2013.
Ziegler explained that the 2016 class council obtained its recommendations by sending out an email out to the Class of 2016 asking for suggestions. They then presented the results to the University by ranking them in order of how many nominations there were per person, highlighting the nominees they thought were particularly suited for the position.
“I think Baccalaureate is a wonderful event that serves a really important part in our graduation,” Ziegler said.
Kennedy noted that his connection to the University is a very important part of his life. Not only did he receive a bachelor's degree and serve twice as a University trustee, but he also has siblings, nieces and nephews who have attended the University.
He added that he has stayed in close touch with his classmates and teachers.
Kennedy was born in Columbia, S.C., and graduated from the University with a degree in history. He was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
After graduation, he served as a clerk for Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice to serve on the Supreme Court.
Kennedy currently teaches courses on criminal law, contracts and race relations at Harvard Law.
Kennedy noted that even compared to Harvard and Yale, the University is quite special as a research institution that gives undergraduates unparalleled access to the professors. He described the University as a bit smaller and more intimate, praising the formalized ethos in which even the most distinguished professors at the University teach undergraduates.
He said the greatest aspect of the University is its human capital.
"I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to listen to lectures, to talk with people, who over the course of decades have meant a lot to me," he said.
He said he remembers many of his teachers very clearly, and that as an academic, he applies much of what he learned at the University to his daily work.
"When I was an undergraduate there, I must say I would go see professors —even the most big-shot professor," he said. "I didn't think there was anything weird about it. I wasn't intimidated by it. It was just there … There's a particular emphasis on undergraduates having accessibility to all of the riches of the university."
When asked about professional accomplishments that make him proud, Kennedy said he has been lucky enough to write several books.
They include “Race, Crime, and the Law,” which won the Robert F. Kennedy book award in 1980. He also wrote “For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law,” which discusses the benefits of affirmative action.
“I especially like it when I've written a book that people put to practical use — for somebody to say ‘Thank you for your book, I was having a real problem and your book helped me with my problem,’ ” he said.
He said his independent work at the University honed his ability for sustained writing, which involves the writing and rewriting of a substantial work.
"I have Princeton to thank for teaching certain skills and inculcating certain habits, one of the most important of which is sheer persistence: sitting down and getting something down, day by day by day, a little bit here, a little bit there, and then one day you turn around and you've done it," he said.
The Baccalaureate Ceremony will take place on May 29 in the University Chapel.