Announcement of Sheryl Sandberg as spring commencement speaker draws mixed responses

Sheryl-Sandberg

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Wednesday’s announcement that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, will deliver the keynote address at UC Berkeley’s spring 2016 commencement ceremony has generated mixed responses from the campus community.

Sandberg, who became COO of Facebook in 2008, is well-known for her efforts to promote gender equality. This year, campus seniors received a poll to nominate potential keynote speakers, with Sandberg emerging as a big favorite. Despite her success and popularity, the announcement of her keynote address was criticized by some who believe that Sandberg represents an elitist form of feminism.

“For any kind of speaker … there’s always a way for them to improve, and definitely she is a wealthy business woman who is successful,” said Katherine Hsu, president of the Senior Class Council and former Daily Californian opinion columnist, at the time of the announcement. “It’s definitely going to make people think about where she’s coming from.”

Many graduating seniors and faculty have reacted positively to the announcement, asserting that Sandberg’s message is one of strength for working women.

“I admire her. I think she’s done wonderful things for promoting women in the workplace,” said Marti Hearst, a professor in the campus School of Information. “And she’s certainly shown that when someone is successful in business, it’s important to bring others along with you.”

But Meghan Warner, a campus senior, said that while she was not angry with the selection, she didn’t think it was such “a great feminist victory” to have Sandberg as the speaker, as Sandberg’s ideals of feminism were not universally relatable, especially to middle-class women.

Charis Thompson, a campus gender and women’s studies professor, acknowledged Warner’s concerns but added that Sandberg is a prominent and inspiring woman in a field largely dominated by men.

“I think the only reason why people might say it’s not the right choice is that she does speak for the super wealthy in a period of ongoing inequality,” Thompson said. “It might have been the right year to bring a speaker of color — in particular, a woman of color — but having said all that, it’s a great choice that I think that all the students have got behind.”

Some have also expressed concern that Sandberg — like Marc Benioff, the spring 2015 speaker — comes from a technology background and may not connect with all graduates. Warner explained that although she was glad the campus made an effort to select a female speaker this year, she was concerned by the trend of white, technology-focused speakers.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Roqua Montez asserted, however, that Sandberg’s message of gender equality could reach all students.

According to Anne Kornblut, Facebook’s director of strategic communications, Sandberg is proud of her invitation to give the keynote address at UC Berkeley.

“It was a great honor for students to choose Sheryl as their commencement speaker,” Kornblut said. “She’s thrilled to appear.”

Sandberg’s keynote address will take place at the general commencement ceremony May 14.

Contact Chantelle Lee at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ChantelleHLee.