February 22, 2016

James Franco Named Cornell’s 2016 Convocation Speaker

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Actor and filmmaker James Franco will deliver the convocation address to Cornell’s Class of 2016 during commencement celebrations on May 28, Zachary Benfanti ’16, the chair of Cornell’s Convocation Committee announced today.

Benfanti said this year’s speaker selection committee was determined to choose a speaker whose background and experiences would “resonate with the widest audience possible.”

“In Franco, we feel extremely fortunate as he has found success acting, directing, producing, teaching, leading philanthropic efforts, but most importantly staying diligent in his educational pursuits as evidenced by [his] wealth of degrees,” Benfanti said.

Franco rose to prominence as an actor playing a leading role in the cult television show Freaks and Geeks, according to his website. He would later star in James Dean, earning a Golden Globe Award, and appear in high profile films including the Spider-Man trilogy,  Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Spring Breakers and This Is the End.  

The actor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the drama 127 hours. In 2014 he took his skills to Broadway, making his debut in an adaptation of Of Mice and Men, his website says.

Franco is also known for his plethora of education experiences — in 2006, unhappy with the his career path he re-enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles as an English major while continuing his work as an actor, according to New York Magazine. He subsequently earned degrees from Columbia University’s MFA graduate writing program and attended both New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Brooklyn College. He has also studied as a PhD student at Yale University and attended the Rhode Island School of Design.

Benefanti emphasized that, even beyond Franco’s demonstrated commitment to bettering himself through his studies, he demonstrates a “worldliness, confidence and ambition” which is essential to what it means to be a Cornellian.

“I hope his speech will impact students by helping them recognize that with the time spent at Cornell, you can do absolutely anything that is aligned with what you are most passionate about,” Benefanti said. “Everywhere Franco has turned he has left an impact and demonstrated what it means to be an effective agent of change, which is a terrific example and inspiration that through his words will hopefully be driven home even further.”

Franco has taught courses on filmmaking and production at New York University, the University of Southern California and his alma mater, the University of California, Los Angeles, according to IMBd. He has also been honored for his charitable contributions to organizations such as the Art of Elysium Charity — which enables children with serious medical conditions to pursue creative projects.

Benefanti said the selection of Franco as the convocation speaker represents a “coup for Convocation in general,” stressing that the committee seems to have evolved away from choosing purely political figures to address graduating classes.

“Prior to Ed Helms [in 2014,] there were many years where politicians rose to the top of committee’s list, and [Franco’s] selection represents a departure from that,” he said. “Last year with Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly, Convocation was gifted with not only an alumna, but a story of strength and determination that powerfully encapsulated the spirit of resilience.”

Benefanti said he believes Franco’s enthusiasm for education and “versatility” in professional pursuits will inspire Cornell’s class of 2016 this May.

“Franco’s versatility is something that is fresh, welcomed and nicely attuned to the evolution of not only Convocation, but also Cornell in fostering a community where its students are able to pursue their wildest passions with no reservations whatsoever,” he said. “It is an honor to be able to welcome him to Cornell this May.”


  • jknnkjnbkj

    Ed Helms’ speech was BY FAR the best Cornell Convocation in recent years. Granted, most of us were at first just that “Andy Bernard” was coming to Cornell, but Ed Helms blew us away with an inspiring message that was also very entertaining. I sometimes go to YouTube and rewatch it, just because it was that good.

    I for one am happy that Cornell has finally moved away from politicians. It never made any sense to me. On the day when we are all there to celebrate our mutual achievements, the University would bring in figures that would divide the student body. Instead of leaving inspired, many students are left resenting the experience for politicizing what should have been an inspiring event shared by all (not just those that agree politically).

    With all that said, I do hope that Cornell doesn’t merely swap politicians for actors. Granted, James Franco is not just an ordinary actor. But still, there are plenty of non-actors and non-politicians that would be great convocation speakers.

    • Rege

      I agree. Entertainers and philanthropists are certainly an improvement over politicians.

      • David

        I disagree with blanket statements like that. We have many politicians that dedicate their life to amazing work. Gabrielle Giffords (last year’s speaker) has tirelessly advocated against gun violence. Al Gore has become a beacon for climate action. Corey Booker, our 2013 speaker, brought tons of jobs and billions in investment to dilapidated Newark when he was mayor.

        Let’s not be so quick to denounce politicians.