CAMBRIDGE — They are titans — one in academia, the other in entertainment — and come May 30, they will join in ceremonial pomp and circumstance when Oprah Winfrey gives the principal address at the afternoon exercises of Harvard’s 362d commencement.
The tapping of Winfrey for the much-coveted slot, announced Monday by the university, prompted cheers but also tittering about celebrity culture’s invasion of Harvard.
“I am sure she is an inspiration,” Harry Lewis, former Harvard College dean, wrote on his blog. “She has given away a ton of money for good causes, to be sure.”
But Lewis, still a professor, described Winfrey as a “self-promoting, wealthy television celebrity” and asked: “Is that what the stage once occupied by Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Ralph Ellison, John F. Kennedy, U Thant, Vaclav Havel, Alan Paton, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, and David Souter is going to be used for in the future?”
In an interview, Lewis said that he felt compelled to note that another woman, whom he also dubbed a celebrity, J.K. Rowling, gave one of the best commencement addresses he has heard.
“Her celebrity was not a distraction,” he said.
In a statement, Drew Faust, president of Harvard, explained the university’s choice.
“Oprah’s journey from her grandmother’s Mississippi farm to becoming one of the world’s most admired women is one of the great American success stories,” Faust said. “She has used her extraordinary influence and reach as a force for good in the world, with a constant focus on the importance of educational opportunity and the virtues of serving others.”
The news on campus largely drew raves from students.
“Oprah is a well-known personality with massive influence around the world,” said Alex Cox, a student.
“She is a public speaker that everyone respects,” said Kate Freedberg, another Harvard student.
In an e-mail, Francis Thumpasery, secretary of the senior class committee, wrote, “The amount of buzz that the announcement has already generated within the senior class is a testament to her broad appeal.”
The choice is a departure from the university’s more traditional roster, which has tended toward heads of state, such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, in 2011, or policy makers, such as Steven Chu, the outgoing US Secretary of Energy, in 2009, or more staid business figures, such as Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, in 2007.
The university has engaged at least one entertainment industry figure, John Lithgow, in 2005, but he is an alumnus (class of 1967) the school website notes.
The choice in 2012 of Fareed Zakaria, the host of a CNN news show and editor at large of Time Magazine, struck some at the time as too close to the world of celebrity. Zakaria later came under criticism for giving a commencement speech that was similar to one he had given earlier at Duke University.
Winfrey has delivered commencement addresses at Spelman College, Duke University, and Stanford University.
At Stanford, she joked about her 2004 giveaway of 276 Pontiac G-6’s to the audience of her show. “I really wanted to give you cars,” she told the crowd.
Instead, the graduating seniors found under their seats two books: Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” and Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth.”
On Monday, Harvard students joked about the giveaways. A running joke around campus was that the graduates would be reaching under their seats for their diplomas.
Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin said the decision to select Winfrey as speaker was made, as is customary, “by university leaders in consultation with an advisory committee on honorary degrees that is composed of faculty members and representatives of the governing boards.”
Mark Castel, president of AEI Speakers Bureau in Boston, which helps place commencement speakers, said universities have two ways of landing prestigious speakers, by offering significant sums, which can go as high as $75,000, or through alumni networks.
Castel said that since Harvard does not pay for its commencement speakers, someone in Harvard’s universe must have been able to reach Winfrey, who probably was drawn to the offer by the prestige of the school.
In Harvard’s calculation, he said, Winfrey is not “just a talking head on television. She’s built an entire business around her brand.
“Harvard respects people who are successful . . . I would think that anyone who has reached her level of success would be someone Harvard would want to have there.”Sarah schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@
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