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Julie Andrews will bring the hills of Boulder alive as CU commencement speaker

In recent years, commencement speakers for the University of Colorado at Boulder have either been controversial or underwhelming to the vast majority of the student body. But neither of these issues are likely to plague the 2013 graduation ceremony, scheduled for May 10, since the speaker chosen -- Academy Award winning actress Julie Andrews -- is one of the rare celebrities about whom almost no one has a bad thing to say.

No, Andrews -- known to multiple generations for her work in Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, The Princess Diaries and the Shrek films -- doesn't have a secret connection to CU. So why'd she say yes? Sosi Papazian, the university's senior class president and a key part of the senior class council charged with selecting a commencement speaker, suggests that simply asking was the key -- but a lot went into the question.

Andrews in "The Sound of Music."
Andrews in "The Sound of Music."

"Every year, the council goes through the same process of selecting a speaker," Papazian says. "We discuss our values as a class and how they tie into the university. Then we create a list, throwing out names of who would be awesome and exciting."

To narrow down that list, she goes on, "we bring in focus groups of students who talk about who would be exciting for them, use the resource centers on campus, ask faculty members and administration who would be a fantastic speaker and why. Then, once we come up with a list of three speakers, we meet with the chancellor and discuss our options. Typically at that point we have a favorite, and once we've received approval from him, we extend an invitation."

As noted by the Boulder Daily Camera, the last two CU-Boulder selections haven't exactly been home runs. In 2010, the commencement speaker was Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle -- a choice criticized by some grads because Ells hadn't signed on to the "Campaign for Fair Foods," a farm-worker's rights organization.

The following year, students were asked who they wanted to deliver the commencement address as part of a survey, with demand highest for Ellen DeGeneres and the South Park/Book of Mormon duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who actually attended CU. In the end, though, the speaker chosen was Timothy Wolf, a Leeds School of Business trustee who's well known among members of his family, no doubt, but not exactly a household name.

Continue for more about Julie Andrews' naming as CU-Boulder's commencement speaker.

And that's not to mention the grumbling in 2011 about the remarks made by ESPN's Rick Reilly to the last graduating class of CU's journalism school; that division of the university continues to transition from its previous model. Reilly said journalists should never write for free, arguing that "nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride!" But two prominent critics maintained that he was dead wrong.

Andrews won an Oscar for "Mary Poppins."
Andrews won an Oscar for "Mary Poppins."

For her part, Andrews, the most politic of public figures, is unlikely to anger a significant percentage of the audience with anything she says -- and as a bonus, she's really, really famous. Not that she was targeted for the latter reason.

"She's had an exciting career, but she's also a very successful role model for women," Papazian stresses. "Outside of Hollywood, she supports public libraries through philanthropic funding, is an advocate of public education and literacy, and has written a number of children's books through her own publishing press. And obviously, from her experience speaking at other awards ceremonies, she's very well spoken."

There's also her aforementioned cross-generational appeal.

"She's respected as an actor rather than just widely known, and she's going to draw in a lot of the parents as well," Papazian says, adding that she hopes Andrews' presence on campus "will bring a lot of excitement. She isn't someone who's historically been associated with the university, but we think she'll promote CU's values and get people even more excited about getting their diplomas."

As for folks who enjoy complaining about CU commencement speakers, well, there's always next year.

More from our Media archive: "ESPN's Rick Reilly gave lousy advice to CU journalism grads, critics say."