UCLA, USC announce commencement speakers


Los Angeles’ two biggest universities have announced their main graduation speakers, with USC opting for its retiring president and UCLA taking a more unusual, but potentially more amusing, bet on a witty chronicler of Mexican American life.

The keynote speaker for UCLA’s College of Letters and Science commencement on June 11 will be Gustavo Arellano, author of the popular “¡Ask a Mexican!” column in the OC Weekly and a book by the same name, officials announced Thursday. Arellano earned a master’s in Latin American studies at UCLA in 2003.

“Gustavo Arellano is a keen observer of life in America -- in particular the culture and diversity of Southern California,” Judith L. Smith, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education at the UCLA College, said in a statement. The columnist was recommended by a committee of faculty, students and administrators.

Arellano, 31, said he was honored -- and shocked -- to be chosen. “I still can’t quite comprehend it,” he said Thursday. “To me, the usual commencement speakers are either truly famous speakers or boring political types.”

The writer, who is also a contributing editor to the Times’ Opinion section, joked that he would give his writings “at least one or two gratuitous plugs” during his speech but promised not to wear the sombrero that his column logo features.

Arellano said he is likely to discuss “what I took away from my time at UCLA -- and it might sound hopelessly cheesy.” Among those topics, he said: his love of libraries and how academia “teaches you how to comprehend the world.”

Across town, USC recently announced that its president, Steven B. Sample, who is to retire this summer after 19 years in the job, will be the main speaker at its May 14 ceremony and is expected to talk about leadership and life lessons. The campus newspaper, the Daily Trojan, has reported that Sample’s selection set off some grumbling from students who said they wanted to honor the outgoing leader but had also hoped for a noteworthy, off-campus figure as graduation speaker.

Among other prominent commencement speakers announced recently by California schools: Pomona College, Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Caltech, NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr.; Occidental College, New York Times columnist David Brooks; Stanford University, alumna Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

UCLA last year experienced a possible pitfall of celebrity speakers. The actor James Franco, a UCLA graduate, was to address the College of Letters and Science but dropped out with only 10 days’ notice, saying filming was keeping him abroad. Franco was replaced by Brad Delson, guitarist for the popular rock-rap band Linkin Park and a UCLA alumnus who is active in raising scholarship funds for the campus.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was USC’s main graduation speaker.