Students display mixed reactions to commencement speaker announcement

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After weeks of speculation, Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of the cloud computing software company Salesforce, was announced as the keynote speaker of the 2015 general commencement ceremony Thursday morning.

Benioff, whose company, Salesforce, was named Forbes’ “World’s Most Innovative Company” for the past three years, has been lauded for his philanthropy and unconventional business approach, which has been said to resonate with Berkeley’s progressive values. Despite this, the announcement was met with mixed opinions from students.

Benioff recently took a stance against a controversial Indiana religious freedom law and has also taken steps to eliminate Salesforce’s gender-pay gap by reviewing and equalizing male and female employee salaries.

“He cares deeply about social justice, children’s health and education, and is taking on the gender pay-gap issue by starting first within his own company,” said Amy Hamaoui, campus director of public relations, in an email. “He is an innovator, both in business and in philanthropy, which aligns with the mission of our university.”

According to Hamaoui, a list of possible commencement speakers is compiled by the Californians, a student group on campus, and invitations are sent out in collaboration with University Relations. This year, the chancellor’s office suggested that the group add Benioff, who spoke at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business’ MBA commencement in 2007, to the list.

Junior Alex Liu said she believes many students will find Benioff’s experience as a major technology CEO engaging.

“He’s relevant, and a good representative,” Liu said in a Facebook message. “I think he’ll be able to appeal to what a lot of students here care about.”

Senior Vishruth Venkat disagreed, saying it was important for all students to be able to identify with, look up to and relate to the chosen speaker. He said he does not see liberal arts majors connecting with Benioff the way that technical majors might.

“What kind of image are we trying to portray as a university (with this choice)? What kind of image are we trying to put forth as success?” Venkat, who is majoring in integrative biology and South Asian studies, said. “Already, there’s a societal consciousness that (some liberal arts) majors are useless. Are we furthering that idea?”

Although Jerry Bao, a computer science major who will be graduating in this year’s commencement, said he understands the feelings of people who are not interested in technology or business fields, he was pleased by the choice — albeit disappointed that U.S. President Barack Obama wouldn’t be addressing the class.

“I don’t think (the speaker) should be a representative of the whole class … (it) should be someone who has made a big difference in the lives of all people,” Bao said. “(Benioff) is more than just a tech speaker.”

Contact Kate Wolffe at [email protected].