NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – He might not be a sitting president, but this year’s Rutgers New Brunswick commencement speaker is something of rock ’n’ roll royalty.
Stevie Van Zandt, who plays guitar in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and starred in the hit HBO show “The Sopranos,” has been tapped to talk at the university’s 2017 graduation ceremony.
The Board of Governors this afternoon approved Van Zandt’s role in the event, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. May 14 at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway.
“We’re delighted to recommend that he be the graduation speaker and receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts,” Richard Edward, Rutgers New Brunswick’s chancellor, said during the board meeting.
Much like a headlining band, Van Zandt’s name was not announced until the meeting approached its end. Some board members appeared to smile upon hearing the news that a legendary New Jersey rocker would address graduating students, their families and faculty.
Van Zandt grew up in Middletown, a sprawling suburb in Monmouth County. He spent many of his younger years shredding his guitar across the thriving Jersey Shore music scene of the 1970s.
The musician played an “influential” role in a number of Springsteen’s early bands, Edward noted, including the iconic E Street Band. Indeed, Van Zandt co-produced a number of the group’s albums, such as the anthem-heavy “Born in the U.S.A.” and “The River.”
He also helped Southside Johnny form the Asbury Jukes, writing tunes for the band, which has since provided the soundtrack for many New Jersey summers.
In 1999, with no acting experience, Van Zandt signed on to play the tough guy Silvio Dante in the budding mobster TV series “The Sopranos.”
Through his six seasons on the anti-hero drama, Van Zandt played a character far removed from his life. Silvio, wearing fancy Italian suits and slicked-back hair, had no problem beating the life out of foes in his pursuit of money and respect.
Van Zandt, on the other hand, had become known for wearing loopy, colorful bandanas and championing more liberal causes.
He has raised money and awareness for the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the rights of indigenous groups, struggling music venues like Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre and, through his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, music education, Edward said.
Van Zandt, also known as “Little Steven,” is also the creator and producer of the radio shows “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” and “Outlaw Country,” according to Rutgers.
Rutgers students, faculty and staff members selected Van Zandt to headline the commencement ceremony after a yearlong process.
Last year, then-President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the university’s flagship campus. After 250 years, he was the first sitting president to speak at a Rutgers commencement.
The Board of Governors also agreed to award Harvey J. Makadon, a physician who has fought the AIDS crisis since the 1980s and rallied for LGBT rights, an honorary doctor of science degree.
Rutgers Camden will host Carla D. Hayden as its commencement speaker on May 17 at the BB&T Pavilion. Hayden is the first woman and the first African-American to serve as the country’s Librarian of Congress.
In addition to her academic and professional accomplishments, Hayden built her reputation as a defender of civil liberties and equal access to information partially through her outspokenness against the U.S. Patriot Act.
“She is the ideal role model for our students,” Rutgers Camden Chancellor Phoebe Haddon told the board.