Xerox CEO Ursula M. Burns to speak at Commencement

Address to culminate sesquicentennial celebration

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Ursula M. Burns, who will speak at commencement, worked her way up from an internship position at Xerox to being CEO of the corporation.
Lonnie Major—Courtesy of Xerox Corporation

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the MIT Corporation makes the final choice of the Commencement speaker. In fact, it is President Susan Hockfield who has the final say. Also, Graduate Student Council president Ulric Ferner did not graduate from MIT as an undergraduate in 2010.

Ursula M. Burns, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation, has been named the keynote speaker for the 145th Commencement on Friday, Jun. 3. This year’s speaker announcement comes at its earliest in more than 30 years. Commencement weekend will mark the conclusion of MIT’s 150-day celebration marking its 150th anniversary.

Burns is the first black woman to serve as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, having succeeded Anne Mulcahy in July 2009. Burns was named the 19th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes last November and she assumed the position of chairwoman of the company earlier this year.

Class of 2011 President Anshul Bhagi praised the selection of Burns, citing her determination and engineering leadership as qualities from which MIT students could draw inspiration.

“She did well in life through persistent hard work,” Bhagi said. President Susan J. Hockfield held a similar position on the relevance of Burns’s life story to the mission of the Institute and its students.

“I am especially glad that Ursula Burns has agreed to share with the MIT community her remarkable personal story: her fearless approach to problem solving as an engineer and a leader, her deep experience at one of America’s most storied technology companies, and her commitment to service,” Hockfield said. “Her life speaks eloquently to the Institute’s own ideals.”

Raised in the housing projects in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Burns graduated from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. That summer, she worked at Xerox for the first time, as a summer intern. After obtaining her master’s degree from Columbia University in 1981, Burns returned to Xerox as a full-time employee.

Over the following two decades, Burns ascended through the ranks of the company, serving first in engineering positions, including project development, before becoming an assistant to then-CEO Paul Allaire in 1991. Burns continued to hold leadership roles on a number of teams, including those in Xerox’s office-network-copying and departmental business units.

Burns began serving as a corporate senior vice president in 2000 and was named president of Xerox seven years later, in 2007, expanding her leadership to include Xerox’s IT, corporate marketing, corporate strategy, and human resources divisions. Burns was named chief executive officer of Xerox last summer and she was selected by President Barack Obama to lead the White House program on science, technology, engineering, and math in November 2009.

The selection process for the 2011 commencement speaker began last spring, when the 2011 Class Council and Graduate Student Council e-mailed surveys to expected graduates. Students were provided a chance to write the names of up to three people they would like to speak at their graduation.

Students leaders, including Bhagi and GSC President Ulric Ferner G, combed through the survey results before presenting a shortlist to the president. The final decision rests with the president.

Unlike many other universities, MIT has a policy of not compensating commencement speakers. Bhagi did not have a problem with this policy, saying “we only invite people who take pride in speaking at MIT.”

With the selection of Burns, MIT has chosen a Corporation member for the fourth time in five years. Raymond S. Stata ’57, Governor Deval Patrick, and former MIT President Charles M. Vest, who spoke in 2010, 2009, and 2007, respectively, are all current members of the MIT Corporation.