Burns has worked for the Xerox Corporation since she was hired as a summer intern after graduating from college. Courtesy of Xerox Corporation

It’s  official — Senior Council and the University have finally announced their choice for the speaker for this year’s 161st college commencement address. On Sunday, May 15, Ursula M. Burns, 52, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Xerox Corporation, will be receiving the University of Rochester’s George Eastman Medal for Outstanding Achievement and Dedicated Service and delivering the commencement address to the Class of 2011.

Burns, a native New Yorker and former resident of the Lower East side Housing projects, earned her Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in 1980 and then embarked on her professional career as a summer intern for Xerox Corporation.

Following her internship, Burns was invited to fill roles in product development and planning. After serving and leading numerous business teams between 1992 and 2000, Burns was eventually promoted to Senior Vice President for Corporate Strategic Services.

By 2007, her experience in product development, marketing and global research boosted her status and led to her election as President of Xerox Corporation. Finally, in 2009, she succeeded Anne Mulcahy as the Chairman and CEO of the company.

Burns’ transition to power was not like that of other top CEOs, however — in fact, it was one for the history books. Not only did Burns become the first African-American female CEO of a Forbes 500 company and rank as one of the 20 most influential women in the world, but her succession of Mulcahy also made Xerox Corporation the first international company to have two consecutive female CEOs.

Dean of the College Richard Feldman says that Burns’ story, as well as her oratory prowess, is bound to make for a powerful address.

“She’s a wonderful speaker with a great story to tell,” Feldman said. “I think that people will very much enjoy hearing her. These are the kinds of attributes we want our speaker to have.”

Although the selection of Burns was not made official until this week, Feldman says that students expressed interest in inviting her as early as last year’s commencement, in which Rochester Business leader and philanthropist Danny Wegman delivered the address. The early interest proved to alleviate the selection process for this year’s speaker.

“Last year, a group of students met with President Seligman to discuss potential speakers,” Feldman said. “As I recall, Ursula Burns was on the list then, and students expressed considerable interest. Because we had already laid the groundwork for this invitation, we did not undertake a similar process again this year.”

In addition to Xerox, Burns fills a myriad of other leadership roles as a counsel to community, educational and non-profit organizations, the National Academy Foundation, the U.S. Olympic Committee and several other organizations — not to mention her nine year tenure on the University’s Board of Trustees.

Burns  also obtained international recognition when President Barack Obama appointed her to lead the White House national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in November 2009 and as the Vice-Chair of the President’s Export Council in March 2010.

In a UR Communications press release, University President Joel Seligman acknowledged the work of Burns and Xerox as the embodiment of a successful company in the global economy.

“Ursula Burns and Xerox are iconic illustrations of our knowledge-based economy,” Seligman told Communications. “Ursula’s selection by President Obama as an advisor on global exports and improvements to U.S. STEM education highlight her national stature.”

Laura Ballou, Director of Wilson Commons, worked with the Class of 2011 Council during the selection and  noticed early on that Burns evoked an enthusiastic student response.

“Burns is an excellent storyteller and I think her message will resonate with the class and their families,” Ballou said. “She has spoken to and interacted with students previously and has always been well received.”

While Burns has generally received a positive response from all parties, Class of 2011 Council president Jonathan Gonzalez felt a little left out in the preliminary selection process.

“I would have asked President Seligman to decide on a few candidates, then let the Class of 2011 Council offer a candidate based on those names,” Gonzalez said. “As the senior class would know based on my class-wide emails, I’ve been advocating for Lady Gaga and Dog the Bounty Hunter from the start,” he jokingly added. “Despite this, certainly Ursula Burns is an extremely impressive choice, and I’m enthusiastic to welcome her on behalf of the Class of 2011 to our commencement ceremony.”

Students and family can look forward to hearing Burns’ address on the morning of May 15 on the Eastman Quadrangle.

Nathaniel is a member of
the class of 2011.



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