UNC Spring Commencement Speakers: A Historic List

The spring commencement ceremony has been a time for reflection and celebration since UNC’s first commencement in 1798. Commencement has traditionally included a featured speaker who provides insight and advice for the graduating students. These speakers have often included prominent people well known through their work in politics, arts, business, journalism, and public service. This list includes UNC-Chapel Hill’s featured spring commencement speakers from 1951-2022.

Year Speaker Role and Affiliation
2023 Bryan Stevenson Equal Justice Initiative
2022 Frank Bruni New York Times
2021 Anthony Fauci and Kizzmekia Corbett (delivered virtually) Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Fauci), research fellow and scientific lead for the Coronaviruses Vaccines and Immunopathologies Team at the National Institutes of Health (Corbett)
2020 Roy Williams (delayed until October 2020) UNC Men’s Basketball Coach
2019 Jonathan Reckford CEO, Habitat for Humanity
2018 Rye Barcott Author, founder Carolina for Kibera
2017 Brooke Baldwin CNN Correspondent
2016 Anne-Marie Slaughter Foreign policy analyst
2015 Jason Kilar Former CEO, Hulu
2014 Atul Gawande Author, Surgeon
2013 Steve Case Co-founder, AOL
2012 Mike Bloomberg Mayor of New York City
2011 E.O. Wilson Author, Biodiversity scholar
2010 John Grisham Author
2009 Archbishop Desmond Tutu Anglican archbishop, Activist
2008 Jessye Norman Opera singer
2007 Madeleine Albright Former U.S. Secretary of State
2006 Wendy Kopp Founder, Teach for America
2005 Rev. Peter Gomes Theologian, Harvard University Divinity School
2004 Julius Chambers Attorney and Civil Rights activist
2003 Bill Cosby Actor, comedian
2002 John Edwards U.S. Senator, North Carolina
2001 Stuart Scott ESPN Anchor
2000 Stuart E. Eisenstat Deputy Secretary, U.S. Treasury
1999 Bill Bradley Former basketball player, U.S. Senator
1998 Marian Wright Edelman Children’s Defense Fund
1997 Erskine B. Bowles White House Chief of Staff
1996 Seamus Heaney Poet, Nobel Laureate
1995 Johnnetta B. Cole President, Spelman College
1994 Francis Collins Director, National Human Genome Research Institute
1993 Ted Turner Broadcaster
1992 David Brinkley News anchor
1991 Lawrence Douglas Wilder Governor of Virginia
1990 Hugh L. McColl Bank of America
1989 Roger H. Mudd News anchor
1988 Dale Bumpers U.S. Senator, Arkansas
1987 Peter V. Ueberroth Commissioner, Major League Baseball
1986 James G. Martin Governor of North Carolina
1985 Charles Kuralt  CBS News reporter
1984 William Leuchtenburg UNC Professor of History
1983 Jim Leutze UNC Professor, Curriculum of Peace, War, and Defense
1982 Martha Nell Hardy UNC Professor, Department of Communications
1981 J. Carlyle Sitterson Former UNC Chancellor
1980 Doris Betts UNC Professor, Creative Writing
1979 Richard J. Richardson UNC Provost
1978 Jim Hunt Governor of North Carolina
1977 Edward Bernstein President of EMB Research Economists
1976 J.W. Fulbright Former U.S. Senator, Missouri
1975 John Caldwell Chancellor, N.C. State University
1974 James Holshouser, Jr. Governor of North Carolina
1973 Juanita Kreps Professor of Economics, Duke University
1972 Elizabeth Koontz Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor
1971 J. Carlyle Sitterson UNC Chancellor
1970 Clifton Daniels New York Times
1969 James A. Shannon Former director, National Institutes of Health
1968 Alexander Heard Chancellor, Vanderbilt University
1967 Gordon Blackwell President, Furman University
1966 Frank Porter Graham Former President, UNC
1965 Douglas M. Knight President, Duke University
1964 Terry Sanford Governor, North Carolina
1963 August Heckscher President’s Special Assistant on the Arts
1962 Ralph McGill Publisher, Atlanta Journal Constitution
1961 Lenoir Chambers Newspaper editor
1960 Luther Hodges Governor of North Carolina
1959 Vermont C. Royster Newspaper editor
1958 Norman Cousins Editor, Saturday Review of Literature
1957 Robert B. House Chancellor, UNC
1956 Barnaby C. Keeney President, Brown University
1955 Carl Sandburg Author
1954 Andrew J. Warren Rockefeller Foundation
1953 Francis P. Gaines President, Washington & Lee University
1952 Gordon Gray President, Consolidated University of North Carolina
1951 William Clyde DeVane Yale University

One thought on “UNC Spring Commencement Speakers: A Historic List”

  1. The university might not have it, but probably Class of 1988 planning notes and DTH articles and/or editorial pages document that the graduation speaker was changed at the last minute from the first female astronaut Sally Ride to the U.S. senator mostly unknown in North Carolina.

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